Must do better: Ofsted report presses for huge improvement in local authority support services

6th April 2001 at 01:00
Just five per cent of LEAs offer "good" support for ICT, found Ofsted in its report. More worrying, there is little evidence of improvement. Jack Kenny finds out where the ICT dream went wrong

Support for information and communications technology (ICT) was one of the weakest aspects of the work of local education authorities (LEAs). It was good in only five per cent and unsatisfactory in 67 per cent of the LEAs in which a judgement was made, with no sign of recent improvement." The ICT section of Local Education Authority Support for School Improvement, the report by Ofsted and the Audit Commission, is salutary reading at a time when nearly pound;2bn will be put into schools via this channel. The report, a consideration of the first 91 LEAs to be inspected, covers all functions of an LEA and the section on ICT makes particularly depressing reading.

The report points out that although ICT is almost always in the LEA education development plan, the focus is on provision rather than standards. This mechanistic approach meant there was little evidence that ICT advisory teams had impacted on literacy and numeracy: "Generally speaking, technical installation and support had a much higher profile than consideration of the implications of ICT for teaching and learning."

Drawing a distinction between curriculum and administrative ICT teams is not productive says the report: "Good LEAs are breaking down the distinction between curriculum and administrative ICT in favour of a common infrastructure and an integrated strategy for managing information flows."

Education authorities have known for some time of a government target to make all information flow from LEAs to schools electronic by 2002. That there was little improvement or even start towards that was noted; "Electronic information flow between schools and the LEA received one of the lowest ratings on the school survey in 2000." The report says this was from a lack of service rather than a poor service.

Commenting on school improvement strategies the report points out the least successful strategies concern the provision for ICT. "Again and again, LEAs have shown they can be an effective conduit for central initiatives. Conceiving then disseminating well-considered strategies is not their strength. ICT planning in most LEAs focuses on equipment, installation, maintenance and the development of teachers' skills, but necessary distinctions are not made between: personal skills as users; skills in using ICT for management; pedagogic skills for teaching ICT or other subjects using ICT; and skills in using ICT for curriculum design."

John Harrold, chair of the new technologies committee of the Society of Education Officers, believes LEAs must admit their failings. "LEAs should hold up their hands and accept responsibility for any inadequacy in the support they offer to schools," he argues. "Clearly there is a mixed picture but there are weaknesses in too many authorities and in so far as they are able to, authorities have a responsibility to put things right.

"Authorities have been encouraged by central government to slim down and have been obliged to delegate funding and responsibility to schools, which might be said to have conspired to make a challenging task extremely awkward. However, they only explain and cannot excue any deficiencies that have been identified. It is up to LEAs to ensure support for schools is improved."

Tony Ecclestone, of the Society of Chief Education Officers, says: "It was inevitable that the emphasis in the first two years of National Grid for Learning (NGFL) was on procurement. Equipping schools with computer networks linked to the Internet has absorbed much of the LEA support officers' time and school queries have been predominantly technical. All this is about to change."

The computer advisers' association, NAACE, whose members are responsible for much of the ICT work in LEAs, accepts the report as accurate and recognises there are weaknesses in LEAs' support for ICT. It points to a lack of data which leads to difficulties in monitoring standards as a cause of the problems Chris Abbott, of Kings College and author of ICT Changing Education, says:

"During the Eighties we saw LEAs across the country develop ICT support services which were the envy of many other countries. Unfortunately, the previous government pressurised LEAs into closing those services, which were beginning to serve the needs of LEAs outside their own areas.

"With the diminishing role of LEAs and their limited funding for central support services it is difficult to see how these services can be rebuilt unless this is done in a structured, planned way through devolved funding for this purpose to each LEA."

Teacher James Simms, of Winton Boys' School, Bournemouth, paints a familiar picture of too few people dealing with too much work. He says: "They (LEAs) do work on the infrastructure but there are very few staff at the centre and they have to look after all the primary and the secondary schools."

Yet LEAs are able to support ICT and some do - an ICT adviser in Yorkshire tells how he described the parlous situation of schools to elected members and was given the necessary funding. And Camden, Stoke and Wakefield also have good reports.

LEAs with forward-thinking strategies are also praised. An initiative in Dudley between the LEA and RM will provide a managed ICT service to schools until 2009. Ofsted describes the project as "innovative, based on clear educational aims and objectives and, so far at least, unique in the degree to which it ties performance and payment to the impact of the project on pupils' learning and teachers' competence in the use of ICT".

Ofsted claims the project has had a major impact on teachers' and pupils' confidence in using ICT in Dudley schools and says teachers are convinced it is helping to raise standards of attainment.

Westminster Council, on the other hand, is criticised by Ofsted for holding back funds: "An inhibitor to development is the relatively few staff available to support key school improvement activities, whether employed by the LEA or commissioned externally. In many cases these activities are the result of statutory requirements or clear government expectations, for example in early years and in ICT. The unwillingness to delegate monies to schools has compounded the situation."

Despite the few successes there are still reasons for concern. Some LEAs criticised by Ofsted chose not to reply to enquiries about the remedial action that they are taking. And that is most worrying of all.

* See Comment page 18

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