Inspectors need to rethink their procedures for judging LEAs, argues James Learmonth
Local education authorities should welcome David Blunkett's "root and branch" evaluation of their operations (TES, May 16). It reflects the Secretary of State's view that local education authorities have an important strategic role in raising school standards.
Any such evaluation will produce evidence about the effectiveness of local authorities that will take the place of the lazy and contemptuous rhetoric of the previous Government.
Although some aspects of the LEA's role are amenable to evaluation by the Audit Commission, the quality of their support for school improvement - which the Office for Standards in Education will continue to inspect - may be less accessible.
At the same time, OFSTED's draft document, LEA Support for School Improvement, is built on a concept of partnership with the LEA in these proposed exercises. For example, the "themes" to be covered during the inspection and the "methods" to be used should be "agreed", and clear guidelines are laid down for the reporting stage. A provisional report will be presented for "discussion" with the chief education officer before a final report is produced. The chief education officer will be "invited to provide a commentary".
The inspection of local education authorities takes OFSTED into new territory, requiring it to comment more directly than ever before on the work of democratically elected bodies, and on how a complex series of social, political and organisational factors can be related to judgments about educational standards in schools.
This is not an area in which OFSTED has recently been much involved. It has abolished the role of the District HMI - officers who were attached to each LEA and who provided a running commentary on standards in schools and further education, and on other aspects of a policy and practice.
The recently revised (1995) Framework for the Inspection of Schools gives inspectors no opportunity to bring forward evidence about the effect of the LEA on the school's quality of provision.
The three "pilot" reports on Cornwall, Barking and Dagenham, and Calderdale have already raised interesting issues. The Calderdale report is coy about the effects of national policies on the school's provision, although it offers judgments on the organisation, motives and policies of local politicians. The interpretation of the "diversity" of schools in Calderdale, encouraged by the previous Government's policy, is a key issue in assessing how effective the local authority has been in planning and in deployment of its resources.
The 11-18 comprehensives and 11-16 comprehensives formed from the controversial amalgamation of secondary moderns may be "diverse" but are perceived locally by many parents and students as having a clear hierarchy of status.
The Government's sudden legislation setting up OFSTED in 1993 made an important contribution to the lack of funding and to the disarray of Calderdale's advisory service. Both the prospect and reality of schools opting to become grant-maintained made financial planning a nightmare. These aspects of the national context are mentioned briefly in the reports, but, significantly, no judgments are offered about their effects.
All LEAs currently have an ambiguous role and diminished resources with which to carry out a vast range of statutory functions, at the same time as supporting their schools in the exercise of their new task of self-management.
If they are now going through a fragile transitional period of rehabilitation after several years of constant disparagement by Government and much of the media, councils without a "diversity" of schools, such as Barking and Dagenham, may be in a stronger position to implement effective policies, and to create the conditions in which schools prosper.
The evidence on which OFSTED relies in its judgments about authorities and their effect on school improvement is drawn mainly from a short, but very intense, series of conversations with key figures and from what inspectors tend to call "scrutinising documentation", in-cluding recent inspection reports of individual schools.
In the pilot LEA reports, the inspectors are unequivocal in their judgments about the success, or otherwise, of the authority's support for school improvement.
It is much less clear how they have, in a short time, resolved the difficult problem of disentangling the school's part in this improvement from the LEA's contribution, or on what sort of indicators they are basing claims of "improvement".
The overall impression is a confused one. Are inspectors reporting their own judgments, and, if so, on what criteria are claims of progress or improvement made? Do they expect the LEA to have in place a monitoring system of its own "as part of its arrangements for school self-review" or are they reporting on a series of conversations in which participants claim that improvement has, or has not, taken place?
Heads and teachers are not necessarily the most reliable witnesses about progress in their own school, and sensibilities may be particularly raw if the school is in difficulty and the authority does not share the school's perception of what needs to be done to improve matters.
A reliable map of improvement surely takes time to construct, and must include regular class observation, although not necessarily by inspectors. Schools should now be developing their own systems of observations. There should also be some analysis of improved educational outcomes for students (not necessarily exam or test scores).
Unless OFSTED can increase and strengthen its evidence base, and unless partnership with the LEA provides a welcome source of such evidence, its admission that its judgments have to be "circumspect" will remain well-founded.
As the programme of OFSTED inspections of LEAs gets under way, there needs to be more clarity about roles, about mutual expectations of procedures, and about definitions of words such as "improvement" and how it can be assessed.
Otherwise, suspicions about lack of planning and vulnerability to political manipulation will be confirmed.
If these issues can be resolved, OFSTED and local education authorities working in partnership have much to contribute to school improvement. They will also provide valuable evidence for the new Secretary of State in his search for the most effective role for LEAs.
James Learmonth is an Associate of the International School Effectiveness and Improvement Centre, Institute of Education. He is currently working as an independent consultant for Calderdale.