Council chiefs wary of inspectors' role
They say local authorities should be judged on observation rather than opinion if the Education Bill is passed and inspections by the Office for Standards in Education begin as planned next January.
In a letter to OFSTED, the Standing Conference of Chief Education Officers and the Society of Education Officers said that establishing the cause and effect of different council activities on the performance of schools would be problematic. "Judgments may rely heavily on matters of opinion. Making objective judgments and measuring performance will have to be developed in the light of experience and that may take some time.
"At first, the emphasis of inspection reports will need to be on recording what is observed."
The two organisations spoke out as consultation closed on OFSTED's proposals to inspect 12 authorities a year from 1998 and ask every council to submit an annual verdict on its performance.
They have been developing their own framework of inspection for LEAs, which has been used in Staffordshire and Kirklees by independent teams led by Professor Maurice Kogan of Brunel University.
Professor Kogan has questioned the competence of OFSTED to investigate local authorities. He claimed the Audit Commission was better suited to the job and said it was odd that OFSTED, whose work is largely based in schools, had been given the role by ministers.
Chris Woodhead, the Chief Inspector, has said in the past that he believes there is no strategic role for local authorities, and many councils are unhappy about the possible tone of OFSTED's reports.
Concern about the role of local authorities in supporting, or failing to support, schools in trouble was heightened last year by the case at The Ridings school in Halifax. Gillian Shephard, the Education and Employment Secretary, attributed a large share of the blame for the collapse at The Ridings to Calderdale local authority, which has agreed to be inspected. The new Education Bill would give OFSTED powers to inspect authorities regularly as a matter of course.
The letter from the education officers said it would be wrong to penalise councils for carrying out Government policy. "LEAs have been actively discouraged from providing services that supplement school resources. Government policy is clearly that resources should be delegated to schools so that they themselves decide whether or not to have them.
"It would be preposterous for LEAs to be judged on whether or not these services are provided - would you congratulate or condemn an LEA which had no such services because the funds had been delegated to schools and the school priorities lay elsewhere?" It said local authorities had extremely limited powers of inspection and claimed retaining central funds to run services for schools was frowned on by the Government.
It added: "Current Government policy comes after a period of years during which LEA services have been reduced in response to Government views and financial strategies which seem to discourage activity in this area.
"Those LEAs that have maintained services have done so despite changes in legislation and the relentless pressure to delegate maximum funding to schools.
"Those who have felt obliged to respond more quickly and run down services should not now be open to criticism for doing so - they need time to respond to a shift in Government policy and encouragement and guidance in doing so. "
The reviews in Staffordshire and Kirklees judged Staffordshire to be competent and in many ways better than competent, and said Kirklees was a healthy authority which had identified areas for improvement but needed time to act.