Give local authorities the power to step in

8th November 1996 at 00:00
LEAs must be better able to intervene in the running of our schools.

After years of being criticised for doing too much, LEAs are now being criticised for doing too little when things go wrong in schools. In some ways, it is disturbing that critical governance issues are still unresolved eight years after the Education Reform Act and 20 years after Tyndale, Taylor and all of that.

Recent events have, however, highlighted a significant issue: the role and powers of LEAs to intervene when the warning bells begin to sound at a school. In this respect, the current arrangements have been found wanting. Some people argue that this is because the unconditional right of LEAs to inspect their own schools has been removed. What is more significant is the assumption that the special measures regime alone would deal with failing schools.

Poor management, a deterioration in pupil behaviour or a lack of improvement strategies can bring a school to the brink of chaos even before an OFSTED inspection or the intervention of HMI.

It is important not to overstate the powerlessness of LEAs. Even with an unconditional right of inspection, LEAs rarely exercised this power. There are many things that can be done to prevent matters reaching crisis in schools. LEAs must have in place organised systems and procedures for gathering, analysing and acting upon information about schools. This will include formal indicators such as pupil achievement data, attendance and exclusions information and levels of special educational need. More important, however, there must be on-the-spot information from advisers and officers about the quality of teaching and learning, achievement strategies, the effectiveness of senior managers and the contribution made by governors. It can be a false economy to cut advisory services to the very minimum or to delegate budgets in their entirety.

LEAs must be able to act on such information. Each school should have an entitlement to LEA support and advice. This must be done as a means of enhancing the school's capacity to monitor and evaluate performance. For some schools, this will not be enough and a more systematic review of performance will be necessary. Again, many LEAs have a more sophisticated approach to this and do not see it simply as a "dry run" for an OFSTED inspection. The findings of such a review must be tightly focused and provide a means for the school to move forward with appropriate support. LEAs must be prepared to say formally that matters are inadequate. Again, this does not have the force of compulsion, but a personal visit to a school by a senior officer who systematically outlines the problems and begins, with the headteachers and governors, to identify solutions is likely to have a significant impact.

LEAs must also be prepared to advise a governing body that certain courses of action, including dealing with internal management problems, will be necessary if the school is to improve.

It is important to keep this problem in perspective. Most schools are only too happy to receive advice and support from their LEA and governors now make active decisions to remain with LEAs rather than become grant-maintained. But there can be a few cases where ill-advised decisions are taken by headteachers and governors. Or, more commonly, there can be situations when a school is going into decline and does not appear to have the will or capacity to reverse the trend. It is in these crucial cases that governance arrangements are lacking. So, what can be done?

First, LEAs must have the power, independent of the OFSTED arrangements, to specify that for a fixed period, a school is "under direction". Being under direction might only require a school to carry out a particular policy or make a certain change. In extreme cases, however, it might entail the LEA removing the headteacher from the day-to-day management of the school, and handing over those powers to an "assessor". This would not be a disciplinary measure. Rather, it would ensure that the headteacher was given support through a period of crisis in the life of a school. Being under direction could also include:

* the right of the school to refuse to take pupils excluded from other schools;

* the power to remove weak or underperforming teachers from their responsibilities without having to go through the full disciplinary process.

Effectively, for a short period, say six months in the first instance, a school under direction would not be directly responsible for its own affairs. At the end of the six months, it would be open to the LEA to invite OFSTED to carry out an immediate inspection or to wait another six months until an OFSTED inspection would be a requirement.

Second, more successful schools should be given the opportunity to become a "holding school" for a less successful school. In a number of ways at present, LEAs use individuals from elsewhere to support schools in special measures or in serious difficulties. Little consideration has been given to asking a whole school to play a role, because of competition and because it may be considered that no school would have the capacity to support another school. Yet, is this entirely true? A successful school could be contracted by an LEA to provide formal assistance to another school through senior management support, exchange of governors and staff development.

The third issue concerns personnel. If the quality of management is so critical to a school's success, then the current arrangements for selecting headteachers are remarkably haphazard. Over time, the National Professional Qualification for Headship should help as candidates become better equipped for the task they face. More controversially, should the LEA be granted a reserve power to veto an appointment should it consider that the decision of the governors is inappropriate? Clearly, this power would only be used in exceptional circumstances and the grounds on which an LEA could dissent would have to be clearly specified.

More generally, there needs to be a frank debate involving politicians, LEAs and teacher unions about dealing more promptly with teachers who are failing - particularly where there are enough of them in a school that they are likely to put it in serious difficulties. Two underperforming teachers in a particular Key Stage in a small primary school can have devastating consequences. As suggested above, there should be a time-limited power to remove certain teachers. Undoubtedly, this is a sensitive issue given publicity about incompetent teachers. Yet, how many good teachers are being ground down by their schools either requiring special measures or staying in special measures because the current competency arrangements are extremely long and drawn out?

Undoubtedly, the OFSTED arrangements have highlighted the problems of seriously underperforming schools. Yet they are not sufficient to deal with schools which range across a wide continuum from success to failure. For the sake of many thousands of pupils, there is a pressing need to find new solutions. Otherwise, the social and educational consequences do not bear thinking about.

David Bell is the chief education officer for Newcastle City Council.

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