Clare Dean analyses the results of a pioneering LEA inspection. Competent and in many ways better than competent - the verdict on the first local authority to volunteer for external inspection. But while the talk in Staffordshire is of a vote of confidence from the independent review team, there is no room for complacency as Philip Hunter, its chief education officer, admits.
For the county still has much to do to raise standards. The percentage of pupils gaining five or more top grades at GCSE is improving, but A-level standards and staying-on rates are below average.
And Staffordshire is a long way from hitting the national targets set for 2000. To reach those, 85 per cent of young people need to be at the equivalent of national vocational qualification level 2 and 60 per cent at level 3.
The Staffordshire review was based on proposals for evaluating performance drawn up by the Standing Conference of Chief Education Officers, and comes as the Government prepares to study the work of every LEA.
Investigations of local authorities' abilities to raise standards were announced by the Prime Minister last year, and trailed in this summer's White Paper Self-Government for Schools. Legislation is expected this autumn.
Chief inspector Chris Woodhead wants to investigate 12 LEAs a year but education directors fear he is being over-ambitious.
The SCCEO and the Society of Education Officers have met Mr Woodhead to discuss their ideas for LEA inspection. And alongside its review, Staffordshire gave the Office for Standards in Education the opportunity to pilot its method for assessing councils.
Dr Hunter said the authority was seeking a more rigorous system of quality assurance as well as a clearer focus on inspection and advice. "We are constantly seeking to raise standards and levels of achievement."
The county has won the trust of schools, governors and parents but, says the review team, its consultation exercises involve so many people that it could slow down policy-making and implementation.
The team, led by Professor Maurice Kogan from Brunel University, said the authority's system of leadership through persuasion, negotiation, and consultation was now under question. It said Staffordshire had gone to the limit on school autonomy, and suggested ways in which the authority could take a stronger leadership role.
These include streamlining consultation, realistic priority and target setting, increasing the attention paid to school development plans and concentrating more on staff training and development.
The team said the authority needed to target its scarce resources better and claimed some schools may even be prepared to give back a share of their budgets in return for stronger leadership. It did acknowledge, however, that Staffordshire was poorly funded and said that more than half of the schools were short of books and materials.
The review was conducted in May, June and July and came at a time when the need for more explicit leadership and the determined execution of all-county policies was becoming apparent to both education officers and schools.
The team included David Hinchliffe, HM inspector, Jackie Strong, Leicestershire's education director, Steve Warburton, district auditor, and David Wilcox, Derbyshire's education chair.
It considered written materials presented by the LEA, OFSTED and the district auditors, and held 90 meetings. Nearly 200 hours of inspector time was devoted to the review and every aspect of the authority from corporate strategies to special needs and the quality of support services was scruntinised.
The team shared the view of OFSTED that the authority met its statutory responsibilities well.
STAFFORDSHIRE FACT FILE
Population: 1 million.
Unemployment: 6.7 per cent (national average 7.9 per cent).
Wage levels: Full-time male earnings only 87 per cent of the national average.
School population: 162,669.
Ethnicity: 96.5 per cent of children aged five to 15 white (national average 89.9 per cent).
Education spending: Receives less per pupil than any English county. Spends 1.8 per cent above the level Government estimates it needs to.
Proportion of resources delegated to schools: 12th highest in the country.
Level of secondary delegation: 93.9 per cent.
Level of primary delegation: 92.2 per cent.
Secondary pupil:teacher ratio: 17.4:1 (national 16.5:1).
Primary pupil:teacher ratio: 25.6:1 (national 22.9:1).
Proportion of primary classes over 30: 29.25 per cent (national average 24.2 per cent).
Social need: 13.6 per cent of pupils on free school meals (national average 19 per cent).
Pupils in full-time education post-16: 66 per cent (national average 72 per cent).
Pupils achieving five plus A-C grades at GCSE:39.5 per cent (national average 38.5 per cent).
Average A-level points score: 0.6 below the national average.
Average points score for two or more A-levels: one point below national figures.