A report from the Association of Metropolitan Authorities published this week recommends a more active and explicit role for local education authorities in helping to raise achievement and tackle schools in trouble, echoing the Labour party's suggestions in the policy document Diversity and Excellence.
The responsibility for school improvement should be shared between LEAs, governing bodies and heads, says the report, and LEAs should help schools set targets, give them better information about performance levels elsewhere in the authority and around the country. "Targeted inspections" by the LEA should complement Office for Standards in Education inspections and should be backed up by a continuing programme of support and advice.
In disciplinary hearings where the LEA is the employer, the governing body should be able to co-opt LEA representatives to serve on the panel "where there would otherwise be a risk of external challenge to the impartiality of a panel".
National criteria on standards should be supplemented by local ones and LEAs should have the right to monitor schools, giving them regular assessments of their performance, and should expect the problems identified to be addressed by the schools through action plans. "Targets should be progressive and should relate to baseline assessments, so that a value-added approach to school improvement is adopted." The Government, says the report, should also "enshrine more explicitly in law the key role of LEAs in guaranteeing quality and raising achievement in schools".
On failing schools, whether identified as such by the LEA or OFSTED, the AMA recommends that the LEA should intervene in progressive stages, starting with "the lowest possible level consistent with improving standards or compliance with the law". So, stage 1 would involve advice to the governing body; stage 2 a formal notice from the LEA explaining the cause for concern, action required and help available. If the school did not respond within a set time, the LEA should have the power (stage 3) to send in up to three trouble-shooting governors (church schools would be allowed to bring in their own extra governors, but if they fail to do so the LEA could make direct appointments). The school would then be given 12 months' grace. Only if all these remedies failed would the school be taken out of the hands of the governors (stage 4), and schools should have the right to appeal to the Secretary of State at stage 3 (as well as stage 4 as they can at present).
The AMA's education chair, Graham Lane, said: "Under the present system, schools are treated as though they are either perfect or total write-offs. There is nothing between complete freedom of action and draconian punishments such as loss of budgetary controls, imposition of new governors by the DFEE and compulsory withdrawal from the LEA fold. There has to be a better way of doing things."
Partnership, Quality and Accountability is available from LGMB publications, Arndale House, Arndale Centre, Luton LUi 2TS Pounds 8