Improving regime wins approval
Unusually, the Government's new Improving Schools campaign has won a fair measure of support, despite the fact that it is funded with old money and based on many existing projects.
The intention is to direct help to schools when they most need it - just after an official inspection - by co-ordinating money and expertise to turn action plans into reality.
Around Pounds 100m is believed to have been earmarked for the scheme, which according to Department for Education sources is already being spent on school effectiveness programmes, but is being "refocused".
However, the Association of Metropolitan Authorities believes it has won significant concessions from the DFE in how the funding is actually allocated, giving education authorities new powers over schools under their remit from next April.
The grant allocated to each local authority is now to be divided into three elements, with around half going to all maintained schools, and 20-30 per cent being allocated to primaries and secondaries on submission of their action plan after the Office for Standards in Education visit. The remainder - up to a quarter - is to be held back to target help at schools identified as having serious weaknesses, to improve training of staff and governors, or to support the curriculum.
"Serious weaknesses" do not necessarily need to be diagnosed by OFSTED inspectors, and the ability to dispense this cash as they see fit has delighted the AMA.
The other development to please local authorities is that they may withhold payment of the post-inspection grant and annual formula grant if they believe the school's planned expenditure does not meet the scheme's objectives or address key issues for action identified by inspectors.
Graham Lane, chairman of the AMA's education committee, said: "It's a major shift in psychology. We want the power to appoint extra governors where the school is not succeeding, and we would like powers to intervene where the school is causing concern."
Alan Parker, the AMA's education officer, also believes problems could arise in co-ordinating the financial year of the GEST grant system with school inspection timetables.
Other significant innovations of the Improving Schools scheme is that, for the first time, all interested parties will be expected to work together. When asked, cheekily, at the programme's launch "Is this a new start?" Education Secretary Gillian Shephard neatly sidestepped the question. But the answer appears to be that it is.
Thus the Teacher Training Agency, OFSTED, the local authorities, heads, the Funding Agency for Schools, universities and, of course, business, will come together under an advisory group to be chaired by schools minister Eric Forth. Their task will be to improve the quality of teaching, look at the use of school effectiveness grants, and promote the use of target-setting to raise standards of achievement.
OFSTED has been asked to identify schools with good target-setting systems and to draw up case studies to highlight good practice. The revised inspection framework will also emphasise the role of target-setting. It is conducting a series of seminars this summer into effective teaching methods with the TTA.
The other radical move is the involvement of the Institute of Education and other academic research bodies in the project. Professor Peter Mortimore, director of the Institute, could hardly hide his glee at being brought in from the cold after 20 years of research into school effectiveness were welcomed abroad but apparently ignored by Whitehall.
The new interest in research is also apparent in the inclusion of an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development Seminar on failure at school under the Improving Schools umbrella. The November conference will be chaired by Professor Mortimore.
The DFE has also drawn up a list of advisers and consultants willing to work with schools identified as having serious weaknesses, extending the choices available to governing bodies and LEAs. Primary schools falling into this category will now get a follow-up visit from OFSTED, bringing them into line with secondaries.
Heads and governors will also get help with formulating their action plans through a series of seminars to be held throughout the country.
Much of the TTA's work has been brought under the Improving Schools umbrella, including a fundamental review of in-service training - a key plank of local authorities' involvement and the Headlamp management training scheme for new heads. It is also seeking bids for research into literacy and numeracy teaching in primary schools.