Neil Merrick on moves to head off critical OFSTED reports and spread good practice. Hampshire is appointing education officers to keep a closer watch over clusters of schools in an attempt to regain some of the direct contact it lost with heads following local management.
In a move designed to pre-empt critical inspections by the Office for Standards in Education as well as to promote good practice, seven officers will each be assigned a group of about 80 schools in what remains of the county following local government reorganisation next April. Local authority inspectors will also review standards by making at least one annual visit to each school.
County education officer Peter Coles admits some people might see the changes as old-fashioned, but suggests they demonstrate a new-found confidence on the part of local education authorities. "It sounds nostalgic, but heads actually miss the inspector who used to drop in on them. They like the pastoral element of the inspector's role."
Hampshire will lose about one-quarter of its schools once Southampton and Portsmouth become unitary authorities in 1997. But the truncated LEA will still include 430 primary and nursery schools, 57 secondaries and 31 special schools. Thirty-two schools are grant-maintained. "We have seen off GM status," says Mr Coles. "Schools want us to work with them and believe we should be monitoring them."
The reorganisation coincides with an OFSTED report on Millbrook Community School in Southampton requiring "special measures". If the school does not show a major improvement, an education association could take over its day-to day running. Hampshire hopes the new structure will help it identify failing schools ahead of OFSTED's visit and allow the council to commission its own inspection. Following an LEA inspection, a school might be told that an OFSTED inspector would be likely to find it has serious weaknesses and meets the criteria for special measures.
Extra LEA staff may be assigned to the schools, which will normally be given about six months to sort themselves out and satisfy their education officer and inspector that problems have been addressed.
But the changes are not just a means to identify schools with problems. Peter Coles says LEA staff are also keen to record positive achievements and discuss performance indicators such as exam results, key stage assessments and exclusions with headteachers.
Each group or cluster will include three primary-phase inspectors, one secondary inspector and an inspector for special schools, some of whom may also work independently for OFSTED. "We are trying to create a sense of team responsibility. Each school will have an education officer and an inspector as their first port of call."
Rosemary Clarke, head of Balksbury Junior School in Andover, and vice-chair of Hampshire's primary heads conference, says schools have regretted the lost contact with LEA officers during the past four years. Local government reorganisation is an opportunity to re-establish closer links.
"It's a positive change which we have fought for," she says. "We want somebody with a good educational background who you can go to for support. They will know schools well enough to identify concerns."
While the area education officer will advise on management issues, including redundancy procedures, inspectors will be on hand to monitor curriculum developments. "If we want to develop a particular area in school there will be somebody at the end of a telephone line who you can bounce ideas off."
Although Hampshire delegates nearly 100 per cent of the money for advisory and inspection services, Mr Coles says an inspector would visit every school, regardless of whether they bought into the LEA service. Ms Clarke did not expect the changes to prevent the LEA reaching the 95 per cent delegation target proposed in the recent White Paper.
Ken Shorey, head of Court Moor School in Fleet, says OFSTED has stung Hampshire into action. "It finds itself accountable to political members and the wider community who want to know why there is a school which is under-performing," he says. "It realises that it has to be more pro-active and show that it is accountable."
Mr Shorey, chair of Hampshire's secondary heads conference, is afraid some of the newly-appointed officers and inspectors may not have much experience of secondary schools - or their management in particular. But he does not see the restructuring as over-interference and points out that even before LMS, Hampshire gave its schools a good deal of autonomy. "I don't think that it undermines LMS at all," he says. "The LEA is showing that it has a stake in the school and sharpening up its sense of responsibilities."