The review and inspection of local education authorities will require some measure of agreement about what LEAs are there to do. It would be strange, after all, if schools or colleges were inspected without any established guidelines which indicate the purpose, role and tasks of schools and colleges.
However, in the pioneering review of Staffordshire education authority, reported in The TES on March 15, it appears there are at least two templates available; one has been constructed by the authority itself in consultation with other LEAs and "stakeholders", the other by the Office for Standards in Education. The latter appears to be concerned with the LEA's role in shaping and influencing school effectiveness and improvement or this, at least, may be inferred.
It is certainly about time that policy-makers decide whether LEAs have a future other than being an all-purpose and infinitely adaptable scapegoat for when things go wrong, financially or educationally. Perhaps the Staffordshire pilot will begin to map out and clarify the basic purposes and multiple functions of LEAs. While OFSTED's concerns about LEAs are very important and legitimate, they are but part of a quite complex range of responsibilities and sphere of influence which extend beyond the inspection of primary and secondary schools. Many of us would argue, for instance, that the LEA's role in reviewing and seeking to rationalise the pattern and number of schools is a key strategic responsibility which also happens to impact on educational quality. Whether OFSTED has any appreciation of, or locus and expertise in such matters is questionable. Likewise, the LEA's influence and knowledge in working with Training and Enterprise Councils, further and higher education institutions and voluntary bodies in pre-school and youth service provision require a type of external scrutiny drawn from a larger pool of experience. Needless to say, the role of elected members and the performance of the chief officer (and his or her senior colleagues) need to be appraised. Any assumption that in this there exists a neat analogy with the school and its relationship between governing body and headteacher would be fallacious in the extreme.
Thus, it is fortunate that Professor Maurice Kogan is leading this first review and inspection of an LEA. His long experience of appraising education policy, both within the United Kingdom and abroad, will ensure there is a rigorous and illuminating critique available for the LEA concerned, and for others to build on and adapt. Professor Kogan's own review of the reports on the education and training policies of member states produced by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development over 20 years or so is highly instructive. The purpose and methodology of these reports could teach us a lot about how we should inspect and review LEAs. It would be no bad thing, either, if the present or next Government commissioned the OECD to conduct such a review of our national education policy. A degree of international "peer review" could be helpful.
The OECD methodology represents a welcome and sensible balance between OECD-led requirements and the host country's special circumstances. As Professor Kogan says, "a successful examination should seek to provide an analysis in such a form as to be directly useful to the country, and thus respect the immediate problems the country faces as being the main focus of the enquiry". Thus, since the inception of such reviews, the United States has negotiated a policy appraisal which concentrated on research and development issues, Germany on the relationship between federal and state (Lander) responsibilities, and Norway on its own educational reforms which has been based on "seeking solutions at home" and felt, therefore, that it was "particularly important for us to be examined, observed and corrected from outside". Such an approach, which includes in part at least, a more customised specification makes a lot of sense.
There are also, however, generic headings which apply to all reviews, and in a recent OECD report on Poland's education policy, these were: context, quality and effectiveness, the teaching profession and teacher education, higher education, finance and management and human resource development with recommendations in a concluding chapter.
Before any review begins, there is a carefully structured process which starts with a discussion between representatives of the OECD education committee and the country. The latter then prepares a comprehensive self-evaluation report which provides the OECD with basic contextual data and whatever policy focus is identified as needing more concentrated and specialist attention. These background reports have to include "multiple national viewpoints, both analytic and subjective. . . from government, practitioners, client groups and from objective academic sources". It then follows that the examining team is selected so as to provide an appropriate range of expertise drawn from politicians, academics, inspectors and administrators from different OECD member states. Further discussions with OECD officials and examiners lead to a final background report and an agreed plan for a visit to the country which can be one week or, as in this year's review of Russia's education policy, up to six weeks.
Throughout the review, the key methodological form remains that of dialogue and so, before any final report is produced, there is a quite formidable and thorough examination meeting held in the OECD's Paris headquarters. At this, the examiners' report is discussed and key questions are tabled, with the country's team led by a minister and the education committee leading for the OECD, rather than the examiners' team.
This is obviously an evaluative structure which we might usefully adapt for our own policy and system review purposes, whether at LEA or national level. No need to re-invent yet more parochial or Europhobic wheels.