Reconnect the life support system

Susannah Kirkman

As concern grows about the decline of the advisory service, the Government may be starting to recognise its value. Susannah Kirkman reports. The loss of so many advisers and advisory teachers has had a significant effect on teachers' morale. It's caused psychological damage," said Catherine Wilson, education manager at the Institute of Physics. "Teachers are desperate for help. Many no longer have someone to support them and work with them."

She reflects the growing belief that the decline in the advisory service has seriously harmed schools. The same view has just emerged in two House of Commons Select Committee on Education reports, published within two weeks of each other.

Four-yearly inspections are not enough to prevent inner-city schools sliding into a downward spiral, according to the Performance in City Schools report. It says that schools need continuous monitoring, preferably by their local education authority. The MPs recommend that LEA advisory services should act as soon as they notice a marked deterioration in exam results, a fall in a school's popularity or staff discontent.

The select committee is concerned at the plethora of evidence it has received of dwindling advisory support. Its Science and Technology in Schools report, published last week, draws similar conclusions to its city schools' inquiry.

"The perception of schools is that the advisory service is not there in the way it was," said Sir Malcolm Thornton, chairman of the select committee.

The MPs' anxiety seems well-founded, as the statistics are startling. Between 1992 and 1993, Kent lost all 28 of its advisory teachers, while authorities such as Avon, Devon and Leicestershire had to cut theirs by half.

Hundreds of adviser posts were axed, too. Norfolk's complement was cut from 15 to three, Doncaster's from 20 to four and Leicestershire's from 50 to 21. Overall, the number of advisers fell by 18 per cent and the number of advisory teachers by 38 per cent, according to research by Dr Joan Dean, formerly Surrey's chief adviser.

An Association of Metropolitan Authorities' survey discovered that the number of advisers in urban authorities fell by 22 per cent between 1992-1993 and 1993-1994.

Dr Dean found that some subjects were worse hit than others. Forty per cent of all music advisers have gone, and there are no longer any music advisers in the south-western education authorities.

The main reason for the cuts was the Government's decision to fund the Office for Standards in Education by halving local authorities' resources for advisers. In some LEAs, poor funding was then exacerbated by rate-capping and an exodus of schools seeking grant-maintained status.

Many of the remaining advisers then found that, to finance the service, they were forced to spend much of their time carrying out OFSTED inspections, often in different authorities.

"Advisers have been under such pressure to hit their financial targets and pay their mortgages that they've had to spend a lot of time on the road," Roy Pryke, Kent's chief education officer, said.

"OFSTED inspections have taken advisers away from the support of schools to a worrying extent," said Dr Dean."One of the service's main responsibilities used to be looking at failing schools and helping them to improve but advisers don't have much time to do this any more. Their pre-emptive role has been lost. "

To maintain a viable advisory team, many LEAs now run commercial services, which schools can buy with their delegated funds. One advantage is that LEAs are forced to tailor projects to schools' needs. However, splitting an advisory department into separate commercial units and employing freelance advisers can lead to lack of cohesion.

"Working as a team and sharing objectives are very important," said Dr Dean, who is concerned that, with the move to unitary authorities, the situation will deteriorate. She believes that an LEA needs at least 17 advisers to provide a workable service. To achieve this, many unitary authorities will be forced to try to build a joint team with a neighbouring authority.

Primary schools have been worst affected by the recent changes. The four-yearly cycle of inspections means that about 5,000 primaries must be inspected every year, drawing many primary advisers away from supporting schools.

"Schools are struggling with the weight of changes imposed since 1988; they feel very exposed," said Eric Spear, who is head of Staplehurst School in Tonbridge, Kent, and an executive member of the National Association of Head Teachers. The virtual disappearance of advisory teachers, who used to work alongside teachers in the classroom and co-ordinate training, has left staff battling to get to grips with subjects such as technology and science.

To try to deal with queries from anxious primary teachers, the Association for Science Education set up a telephone helpline. But this is no substitute for advisory teachers or adequate training, according to Catherine Wilson.

"The money must be invested to get the support going again," she said. "Schools need help from people who understand the primary ethos and teachers' lack of confidence, and who will not steam in and take over but work with staff."

Eric Spear says the problems are compounded by the divorce of inspection from support and advice in the OFSTED process. "They leave you with all the pieces to pick up. You're denied the services of the inspectors in drawing up an action plan and implementing it."

Debbie Zackary, a freelance OFSTED inspector, is also frustrated that inspection and advice must be separate. "By the time I leave a school, I usually understand where the problems are, but I have to leave the school to sort them out," she said."If I supply enough detail in my report to help the LEA adviser who follows me, it gives an over-negative impression."

She believes two days' support and advice should be built into each OFSTED contract.

There is widespread condemnation of the Government's new proposals to target grants for education support and training at all schools following an OFSTED inspection, regardless of how well the schools have performed.

As the money is coming from existing funds, the Association of Metropolitan Authorities calculates that, from next April, three-quarters of schools will lose half of their training budget.

John Fowler, assistant education officer of the AMA, believes the new system will make it even more difficult for LEAs to provide continuous monitoring and support for schools. "If schools have to wait until their inspection year to get money for training, the children's education may well have suffered by then," he said. But Mr Fowler is cautiously optimistic.

The latest AMA surveys show that the position is stabilising or even improving slightly in some authorities, although the figures highlight the disparity between LEAs. While some authorities have about 11 inspectors advisers per 10,000 pupils, others have only two. But no more advisory jobs are being lost, and a few authorities, like Kent, are taking on new staff.

Increasingly, LEAs are beginning to move back to their advisory role, says Mike Jolly, president of the National Association of Inspectors, Advisers and Consultants. "Continual inspection can be a very sterile exercise on its own, and OFSTED inspectors have an impossible workload," said Mr Jolly. He says some LEAs now make advice a priority for funding, while others make enough money from the services they sell to schools to reduce the number of OFSTED inspections they carry out.

Even the Government now seems to be starting to recognise the value of what LEAs can offer. "The climate has changed significantly in the past few months," said Roy Pryke. "The Government is beginning to realise that the quality and health of the education service will be damaged if LEAs are not allowed to continue in a supportive role."

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