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Local authority chiefs to lobby Woodhead

Chief education officers are due to meet the chief inspector of schools next month to press for changes in the way their services are to be inspected.

The first formal inspections of local authorities have only just got under way, but senior officials are concerned at problems that have emerged during trial runs of the legislation.

According to Philip Hunter, the chief education officer in Staffordshire, officials want a system that requires inspection reports to be more clearly based on evidence. The meeting has been requested in the wake of the inspection of Birmingham, one of the two authorities that volunteered as pilots.

The report on Bedfordshire, the other pilot authority, has yet to be published, but is likely to commend the progress being made by the county's education service after local government reorganisation seven months ago. (The county lost Luton in the shift to unitary authorities.)

The experience of inspection has convinced Paul Brett,the county's director of education, that the major flaw in the process is that the Office for Standards in Education does not have a precise definition of the role of the local authority.

He says: "It is unclear when OFSTED refers to the local education authority whether it has in mind the elected members, the education department or the education service."

The central focus of local authority inspections is the extent to which they are effective in raising standards in schools. According to Mr Brett, that narrow judgment cannot do justice to the services provided by local education departments.

In total, nine reports on local authorities have been completed, though not all have been carried out by OFSTED. Apart from the London borough of Hackney, and Calderdale, where ministers asked OFSTED to investigate, all authorities inspected have been deemed to be relatively successful.

The difficulty with the sample, however, is that the services were either volunteered by chief officers keen to demonstrate their effectiveness, or had been identified as local authorities likely to have problems.

The chief inspector, Chris Woodhead, in his annual report last week, made it clear that OFSTED believes that some local education authorities will have to show substantial improvements in their performance if they are to fulfil the role the Government has in mind for them.

In the main, local authorities would prefer a more substantial role for the Audit Commission, which is currently the junior partner in inspections.

Mr Brett says there is a case for the standards and effectiveness unit within the Department for Education and Employment to be part of the assessment.

The Society of Education Officers intends to put its view that future inspections should be carried out against a clearer framework of what is expected from local authorities. "The reports should not be a battleground for fierce argument over what constitutes effective strategies for school improvement," says Andrew Collier, general secretary of the SEO.

Local authorities are to be inspected every five years and the first 12 to be carried out have already been named.

If the experiences of Bedfordshire and Birmingham are anything to go by, the skirmishes between councils and OFSTED have only just begun.

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