LEAs judged by own goals
Investigations by the Office for Standards in Education into local authorities' ability to improve achievement will measure performance against aspiration.
Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector, said there would be no pre-determined outcome.
"We will not be coming in trailing our own ideological baggage," he told council officials at the national conference on local management of schools in Exeter last week.
"We want to work with you and understand the overall context within which you function . . . your context, your priorities, your structures. We want to understand what you do and why you do it and measure you against your own aspirations rather than our own blueprint."
The idea of inspecting LEAs was first announced by the Prime Minister last year and was trailed in this summer's White Paper Self-Government for Schools with legislation expected this autumn.
But it may well have been suggested by Mr Woodhead who is known to be sceptical about the quality of local authority advisers.
He wants to investigate 12 local authorities a year but education directors fear that he is being overly ambitious given OFSTED's problems in meeting targets for primary inspection.
And the Standing Conference of Chief Education Officers and Society for Education Officers, who are worried about the political "spin" that might be put on the findings of an OFSTED inspection, have their own ideas for evaluating performance.
Their proposals have been drawn up by Eric Bolton, the former head of Her Majesty's Inspectorate. The first authority to undergo inspection both by OFSTED and an independent review team was Staffordshire. Mr Woodhead now has plans to investigate Cornwall and the London borough of Barking and Dagenham.
He said there were two key reasons for authority-wide inspections - public money was involved and LEAs made an impact on school performance "for better or worse".
"It is important that we come to a greater understanding about what constitutes good and bad practice so we can disseminate the former and do something about the latter."
As well as talking to council officials, inspectors will also want to meet local politicians.
Simon Jenkin, Devon's chief education officer, said self evaluation, staff development and external evaluation were vital to raising school improvement.
But he said: "The role of the LEA must be in supporting and monitoring classroom activities in the interests of the youngsters who must always remain in the forefront of our minds."
Mr Woodhead said the crucial issue for schools was the extent to which they believed they managed their own affairs under LMS.
"Where does local management stop, at what point is it right and proper for the LEA to intervene in order to prevent failure," he asked.
He said there were dangers of school self-evaluation programmes with targets not set high enough.
And Mr Woodhead said: "Inspection shows that not many schools are that good yet at identifying the real priorities. Not many are that good at translating the priorities they do identify into systematic programmes of action with deadlines and quantifiable targets. Not many tie in any programme they may have developed properly with budget decisions that can be justified."
He believed, however, that schools should set their own targets and be able to call in help if and when they wanted it - and from whatever source they chose.
"It shouldn't necessarily have to come from the LEA," said Mr Woodhead.