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Surprise standard-barer

Staffordshire has joined forces with OFSTED, reports Biddy Passmore

If you want to beat 'em, invite 'em to join you. That would be one - possibly unjust - way of describing the action of Staffordshire education authority in asking the Office for Standards in Education to help it look at its own standards.

The county council is to commission a review of its effectiveness in raising standards of education. This will be chaired by Maurice Kogan, professor of government and social administration at Brunel University, and director of the Centre for the Evaluation of Public Policy.

Staffordshire thus becomes the first education authority to pilot the plans for evaluating LEA performance drawn up by the authorities themselves. They are based on proposals by Professor Eric Bolton, formerly head of Her Majesty's Inspectorate.

But the county is also giving OFSTED the opportunity to pilot its own method for assessing the contribution LEAs make to raising standards. The idea that OFSTED should "inspect" education authorities was first announced by the Prime Minister in his speech to grant-maintained schools in Birmingham last September. It has since been the subject of edgy negotiations between Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector of schools, and chief education officers.

Dr Philip Hunter, Staffordshire's chief education officer, has thus stolen a double march on his colleagues by announcing both the county's own exercise and OFSTED's participation in it.

While the authority's two-month review of all its functions is being carried out this summer, a team of HMIs will be visiting schools and other establishments with OFSTED's narrower focus in mind. Their findings will be fed to the HMI on the review team and incorporated in Professor Kogan's report but Chris Woodhead will retain the right to report separately to the county's education committee on any aspect of the findings gathered.

This, according to a statement by Mr Woodhead timed to coincide with Staffordshire's announcement, is "a significant and positive development" which gives OFSTED "the opportunity to trial the methodology for LEA reviews which we are currently discussing with chief education officers".

The discussions, which began with open hostility on the part of the LEAs and have since, according to one source, been like "two old dogs circling each other and sniffing", have yet to make great headway.

The authorities, although reassured by the review framework OFSTED proposes, remain deeply suspicious of Mr Woodhead's motives. Their suspicion was deepened by the remarks on LEAs he made in a pamphlet published before Christmas by Politeia, a right-wing think-tank. He referred to the "dependency culture" created by education authorities and cast doubt on their continuing role in raising standards in schools.

The chief inspector, for his part, knows that he has no legal right to inspect LEAs and must proceed by consent. He has already said that reports on any authorities agreeing to take part in the pilot phase of the OFSTED exercise will only be published if all parties agree.

The LEAs are particularly worried about the narrow focus of the OFSTED exercise and fear that Mr Woodhead, a keen extrapolator, will try to extrapolate from the progress individual schools make after OFSTED reports to the effectiveness of the LEA, ignoring the role of governors and heads. They also want a clearer definition of what LEAs are expected to do before the exercise starts.

Dr Hunter professes lack of interest in any political skirmishes. "We just want a good review of Staffordshire LEA," he says. "We've got a good framework and good people and I'm particularly pleased that OFSTED have come on board, giving the collaboration and rigour that we need."

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