What impact does Shropshire education authority have on the quality of teaching and learning in classrooms? How can the LEA be sure that all its efforts at raising standards are reaching all teachers and making a difference to students? These questions are asked daily at the authority, and if they cannot be readily answered, then it probably means that the huge investment of public resources is based, simply, on an act of faith. With the prospect of major changes ahead, we decided to try to get closer to the elusive answer.
With less than two years to go before local government re-organisation splits Shropshire in two, both future LEAs have endorsed, in principle, joint arrangements for the advisory and children's services, confident that there is an effective support system in place, and that schools want this to continue. There is an Education Partnership which sets out mutually agreed targets for improving performance for all schools. The RAISE project (Raising Achievement in Shropshire Education) seems to have led to significant improvements in reading and numeracy. The development of a data-rich environment, through which pupil performance is analysed within and across schools, is linked to a strong attached adviser system, and both these underpin school planning and review. The Office for Standards in Education framework for inspecting LEAs is reassuringly in line with the county's policies.
It would have been easy to assume the success of the Shropshire strategy and to have entered a challenging future with a complacent pat on the back.However, an LEA's efforts at school improvement are only as good as they are capable of reaching teachers and students. In order to influence classroom practice effectively we need to get under the skin of schools and assess our influence on them. Does the LEA have an impact on teachers and teaching directly, or is it through the conduit of heads, senior management and curriculum leaders? Does an effective LEA know enough about what teachers perceive as key influences? This is not easy to measure because the precise origins of ideas and strategies in operation are hard to track down.
These questions formed the basis of a research study* in which a representative sample of 20 primary and secondary schools were visited by Keele University researchers and LEA advisers. The study set out to examine how schools identify effective teaching and learning, and to what extent the LEA - and other agencies - have an impact on them. We wanted to identify the levers and mechanisms within and beyond schools that respond to the issues that teachers identify as significant in extending their own development and thence, students' achievements.
The research identified a range of practices and processes which seem to apply consistently to the schools. It is clear, for instance, that both the generation and analysis of pupil performance data are well-established.Comparative data, provided by the local authority, help schools to compare like with like, but nearly all are also getting to be very creative in producing their own data, across and between subjects or in relation to important school policies, such as homework or extra-curricular activities.Schools are increasingly confident about their capacity to quantify what they value and need to monitor more systematically, rather than passively accept the value of what others have decided can be easily measured.
Rather more variable is the way data is then used so that good pedagogic practice can be identified and promoted. In most schools the highs and lows of pupil performance are scrutinised in relation to more or less effective teaching and learning methods, group size and composition, extension opportuniti es or the type of homework provided. In such cases the professional climate is impressive: analytic, collaborative and firmly grounded in peer review and classroom observation. LEA advisers are often involved.
It proved difficult to draw a line between a school's own improvement strategies and the local authority's interventions. Change most often results from an interaction of internal and external influences. Teachers' views, enthusiasms and initiatives are rarely formed in isolation but in the context of local and national preoccupations. The activities of LEAs are not only determined by these same forces but also in response to requests for support. It was also clear that the LEA's capacity to sense and articulate the emerging needs of teachers plays an important part in keeping things moving forward.
A mature relationship between schools and the LEA was evident. Shropshire is seen as the schools' "partner, challenger and friend". One headteacher was typical when she said that "schools' relations with the LEA have changed from one of some suspicion to the two of us having the same interest: school improvement". Another added that "there is now greater consistency in the authority's advice and practice" but that the "really cost-effective consultancy arrangements may now be threatened". Indeed, the external research team was struck by Shropshire's "resource squeeze", whether in schools or in the authority itself. Excellent professional practice, including mutual classroom observation and paired teaching, is possibly at risk because the financial elastic is about to snap.
In such a context it is clear that Shropshire has to concentrate on those activities that add value to the quality of pupils' learning. In other words, LEA improvement, by way of school improvement, must lead to and from classrooms and pupils.
Within such a frame, demonstrably useful LEA strategies include:
l providing timely and comprehensive performance data on pupils and schools, including cross-phase (primary to secondary and secondary to post-16);
l keeping schools informed about Government, the Teacher Training Agency, OFSTED, the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, the Training and Enterprise Council, and university initiatives;
l negotiating and setting appropriate targets, both quantitative (reading scores or GCSE results, for example) and qualitative (use of professional training days or involvement of Artists in Schools);
l disseminating good practice, a notable instance being Reading Improvement Groups in primary schools, based on pupils' levels of proficiency, and "Circle" work, which aims to improve oral skills through structured discussions;
l developing a shared language with teachers so that some of the key concepts which underpin professional practice can be more accurately expressed;
l supporting the development of heads, existing and potential, both as mediators and agents of change.
A high proportion of the headteachers were "Shropshire-bred" and, significantly, some have benefited from experience as advisory teachers. This added to the breadth and depth of their educational leadership role, a role which includes a judicious blend of the entrepreneur and the gatekeeper in deciding when and how to change.
The findings are now being discussed with councillors and heads, and are informing the LEA's planning of the future Joint Advisory Service. More professional development for heads is needed, both preparation for headship and at regular intervals after appointment. A major focus for in-service training will be curriculum leadership within school, given the research report's emphasis on the key role of the heads of department and curriculum co-ordinators. Governor training will be more closely focused on pupil achievement.
Heads have asked for more emphasis on what the research calls the technology of teaching, ensuring that LEA networking helps classroom practitioners share and debate good practice and exchange ideas, visiting each others' classrooms more frequently. Where there is excellence we need to unlock it, disseminate it and encourage its further development - a challenge to do yet more with even less. While this, and much else in the Shropshire study, is generalisable, it is equally clear that LEAs need to conduct their own audits. The significant levers of change and improvement in Shropshire don't necessarily apply elsewhere. For, just as each school has its own history, geography and chemistry of people, so too, do local authorities.
Report on Effective Teaching and Learning in Shropshire Schools, Keele University Centre for Successful Schools, January 1997
Carol Adams is chief education officer of Shropshire County Council. Professor Margaret Maden is director of the Centre for Successful Schools, Keele University