It's not what you have but how you use it;Briefing;Document of the week

19th February 1999 at 00:00
There is no link between spending and quality of education, according to an Audit Commission study, reports Jon Slater

LOCAL education authorities hoping for stability after the turmoil of the past few years are likely to be disappointed, according to Held in Trust - the LEA of the Future, published by the Audit Commission this week. "LEAs ... are at the beginning rather than the end of the change process," it states.

Held in Trust is the latest in a series of Audit Commission reports looking at the performance and future role of local authorities. It is based on fieldwork, a survey of schools' opinions and an analysis of spending in 27 LEAs.

While the link between authority intervention and educational outcomes may be "hazy", the authors say "school improvement is central to the future of LEAs."

High-quality advisory and inspection services are "key" to this role. But despite fears that these services have been hit by the creation of the Office for Standards in Education and by increased delegation of money, the report found no link between spending and quality.

It is how money is used that is important. "Feedback from schools suggests that services do not always direct their effort to schools most in need of it," the report says.

Special educational needs policies in some authorities are said to be outdated. And nationally under half of statements are produced within the 18- week time limit. The quality of strategic planning was also found to be "variable both within and between LEAs. The vision is not always linked to LEA practice."

But local authorities not only need to address existing weaknesses they also have to respond to the new challenges posed by Government policies such as 100 per cent financial delegation and education development plans.

Ministers' Fair Funding reforms will increase pressure on authorities to provide value for money and tailor services to schools' needs. Services authorities currently provide are seen by schools as highly variable.

Authorities such as Nottingham already allow schools to choose different levels of service depending on their size and requirements. "Unfortunately not all authorities have made the adjustment from a provider mind-set to that of an agent of schools," the report says.

Despite ministerial pressure, different LEAs are likely to continue to retain different levels of funding. Small and rural authorities, those with high levels of deprivation, and those with large numbers of under-performing schools will all need to retain more funds centrally.

And according to the survey of schools, there is little enthusiasm for increased delegation. Only 17 per cent of primary and 34 per cent of secondary schools are in favour. So LEAs will also need to provide training and support to heads and governors to ensure they are prepared for the changes.

If that is not enough for authorities to be getting on with, they also have to prepare for Best Value, the Government's latest initiative to secure value for money from Council Tax revenue. Officers will need to develop performance indicators, targets and review mechanisms for all services.

This does not just apply to raising standards in schools. As the report points out, 90 per cent of authorities' retained expenditure is spent elsewhere - on lifelong learning, school admissions and home-school transport among other areas.


FIVE areas for action

1 Advisory services need to be better targetedat failing schools

2 Special educational needs - fewer than half of statements are produced on time.

3 Local authorities need to act as agents ofschools rather than providers.

4 Authorities should collect and analyse as much school improvement data as possible.

5 Cost effectiveness of support services currently provided by local authorities should be reviewed.

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