Plans by the chief inspector, Chris Woodhead, to inspect the effectiveness of local education authorities in raising standards in their schools have met a hostile response from chief education officers.
They have told him that the Office for Standards in Education (OFSTED), led by Mr Woodhead, has no legal right to inspect LEAs. And they have pointed out that chief education officers will be piloting in the New Year their own proposals to evaluate the performance of authorities - proposals drawn up by Professor Eric Bolton, himself a former head of Her Majesty's Inspectorate.
Underlying their reaction are suspicion of Mr Woodhead and a fear that an OFSTED exercise would be used further to undermine the position of local education authorities. Mr Woodhead is known to be sceptical about the quality of local authority advisory teams.
The idea of inspecting LEAs was first announced by the Prime Minister in a little-noticed section of his speech to grant-maintained schools in Birmingham in September but it may well have been suggested by Mr Woodhead.
"Raising standards and quality in county schools is, or should be, one of the main functions of an LEA," Mr Major said. "I can announce today that the Inspectorate will, over the coming year, be reporting on what LEAs are actually doing about this; and how effective they are at it." In an internal memo to OFSTED staff at the time of the speech, Mr Woodhead said he had explained to the Prime Minister's Policy Unit that resources were "heavily committed" and that OFSTED could not plan to look at more than a handful of authorities over the next year.
But even that "handful" may not prove possible unless Mr Woodhead manages to reassure LEAs about his intentions and the handling of any resulting reports. He and senior colleagues are now drawing up detailed proposals for submission to the chief education officers and local authority associations next month.
However, the note of the initial meeting between CEOs and Mr Woodhead makes it clear that "LEA co-operation on the basis of the proposals so far and on the timescale envisaged would be very unlikely".
The chief inspector is said to accept that OFSTED has no right to inspect local education authorities; he knows that he will have to proceed by consent. His argument is that inspectors have become aware during school inspections that a school's actions depend to some extent on the lead given or not given by its local education authority. It is possible, he argues, to draw inferences from this but it would be unwise to make the results public without checking at first hand whether the inferences are correct.
Such a soothing approach might carry more weight with local authorities if it came from a different source. But their recent experience of OFSTED has not inspired trust, as the recent exchange in the TES between Mr Woodhead and Keith Anderson, chairman of the Standing Conference of CEOs, has made clear. Not only do local authority officers and politicians have reservations about the inspection exercise itself: they are also concerned about the political "spin" that would be put on any findings.
Inspecting authorities, rather than schools, would not be a completely new departure for the Inspectorate. In the 1980s, under Eric Bolton, there was a series of reports on the quality of educational provision in authorities such as Dudley (chosen because of its low spending) and the Toxteth area of Liverpool (where there had been riots).
But the Inspectorate did not look at authorities' administrative arrangements, political structure or budget-making process because it had no authority to do so.
Moreover, as Professor Bolton pointed out to the TES this week, the organisation of education has changed profoundly since the 1980s. Now that governors and heads have distinct managerial responsibilities, LEAs are no longer so directly responsible for the standards in their schools.
"You can't now look at what goes on in these highly autonomous schools and track it back to the LEA and beat them over the head with it," he said. "You have to take account of governors and heads."
His proposed scrutiny regime therefore suggests looking at how authorities operate in partnership with schools - and whether a hands-on approach, in which LEAs get involved in detailed monitoring and inspection, produces better results than a lighter touch.
The framework he has drawn up for the Standing Conference of Chief Education Officers, which has been broadly accepted, goes much wider than OFSTED's concern with support for raising school standards. It covers all the main tasks of an education authority, from strategic planning to support services, including quality assurance.
The framework would provide a basis both for local authorities to review themselves and for them to be inspected by an external scrutiny team. Members of the team might be drawn from HMI, the Department for Education and Employment, the Audit Commission, another LEA, or higher education, and would include a senior member of the authority being inspected. Reports would be published.
Once details of the framework have been agreed in the New Year, the CEOs hope that all authorities will try out the self-review and that two authorities (perhaps a county and a metropolitan area) will pilot the external review.
The local authority associations have yet to take a formal position on the OFSTED inspection proposal: there has only been a preliminary meeting between officers and Mr Woodhead. The Association of Metropolitan Authorities has agreed that LEAs should be subject to external inspection. But Alan Parker, the association's education officer, said last week: "We see the Eric Bolton exercise as the best route. We don't think it's particularly helpful for two people to be inventing the wheel at the same time."
Another local authority source, however, doubted the wisdom of appearing reluctant to be inspected by OFSTED. "If local education authorities are in charge of evaluating standards in schools, OFSTED must evaluate the performance of the evaluators," he said. From the Government's point of view, the local authority exercise would seem "too cosy".