Josephine Gardiner opens a two-page report on the Audit Commission's scrutiny of local councils' performance by asking what the deluge of raw data from relatively crude indicators can tell us about education.
This week we discover that 5 per cent of the rubbish produced by citizens in Huntingdonshire, which includes the Prime Minister's constituency, is recycled, compared with a mere 1 per cent of the garbage in Tony Blair's Sedgefield backyard. Gillian Shephard, meanwhile, can get her garden waste collected free.
The Audit Commission's publication of comparative data on council performance in all services from street lighting to education satisfies a deep-seated human need to peer over your neighbour's fence, but the argument continues over whether raw facts provide as useful a picture of schools and social services as they do of dustbins.
Staff at the Audit Commission are the first to admit that the measures of performance are crude, but the purpose of the exercise, they argue, is not to provide sticks to beat councils but to highlight discrepancies in performance so that the causes can be investigated. This view seems to have been accepted by most of the local authorities and representative groups, although they continue to push for subtler and more numerous indicators.
This is the second year that the performance data has been published, so attention will focus on comparisons with last year. The pattern across all services is that councils which performed spectacularly badly last year have pulled up their socks, but the authorities that were about average are resting on their laurels and have made little progress.
Paul Vevers, the Audit Commission's assistant director, admits to being disappointed. "The average councils are not very ambitious, even when they can compare themselves with similar councils who are doing much better. The challenge will be to interest councillors in taking a greater role as champions of the public." He points out that if those metropolitan councils that are owed Pounds 35 million in council tax improved their collection rate by just 1 per cent, they could employ 17 more teachers.
The greatest overall improvement was seen in the number of councils processing statements of special need on time. Paul Vevers attributes this to the boost given by the joint report by the Audit Commission and HMI in 1992 which "helped raise the temperature" , and also to the introduction of the code of practice. But the commission has harsh words for those councils still dragging their feet (see facing page). "The fact that so much improvement can be achieved makes the others look worse."
Last year there was considerable criticism of the relevance of the indicator for under-fives education. This simply asks councils how many three and four-year-olds have a local authority place, without distinguishing between full and part-time places or types of nursery provision, or including an indication of how much each authority was spending. No attempt has been made to refine this indicator this year, so we are left simply with the information that some councils provide more under-fives places than others, which is hardly news.
Paul Vevers said there were no plans to make this indicator more subtle: "We have to balance the desire to have ever more performance indicators with the need not to overwhelm people. The public needs . . . a broad impression. "
Expenditure on primary school pupils increased more than spending on secondaries in all councils except the London boroughs, suggesting that some attempt is being made to address the funding gap, but the difference is still massive and the Audit Commission says it could not see any pattern to this shift - similar councils varied as much as very dissimilar ones. London boroughs spend on average Pounds 2,595 on secondary pupils compared with Pounds 1,959 on primary; in the counties the figures are Pounds 2,168 and Pounds 1,618 respectively.
There was good news for students - the 15 councils with the worst record for punctual payment of grant cheques have all smartened up their act. While they managed to send 54 per cent of cheques out on time in 9394, in 9495 the average was 88 per cent. The best and average performers last year have not slid back.
This year the Audit Commission has introduced new measures of efficiency in social services for children. Councils were asked how many children in care were found foster homes, how many are on the child protection register, and whether children in care were forced to move more than three times during the year.
Some councils, the report notes, place 50 per cent more children in foster homes than others (38 per cent in Trafford; 82 per cent in North Tyneside). It also suggests that there is a need for a public debate on the reasons for wide variations in the number of children considered to be at risk. The horrors of the Rosemary West trial this year highlighted the huge differences in the help councils offer young people leaving residential care. Paul Vevers agreed that this could form a useful indicator for the future.
The Audit Commission is planning to phase in several new education indicators for publication in March 1998. From next month, local authorities will be asked for data on the take-up of school meals, class size, and spending on and participation in adult education. Another plan is to collate more detailed and contextualised information on academic performance, setting GCSE results against factors such as number of GM schools, pupil-teacher ratios, spending, and social factors such as the number of pupils receiving free school meals.
More controversially, there are also plans to include primary national curriculum test results so that they can be compared with expenditure. Mr Vevers points out that they would be aggregated into an average for the LEA, so individual schools' performance would not be identified, but it seems likely that there would be objections from schools because of doubts about the tests themselves.
But Mr Vevers says: "You cannot object that these indicators are simplistic, and then criticise us for trying to create broader measures."