What inspectors must probe in town halls

27th June 1997 at 01:00
David Singleton ("A baseline to assure an honourable evaluation", TES, June 13) says that "the central question . . . to be asked of local education authorities is: how much difference do they make?" It is a question worth asking and the inspection of LEAs is long overdue.

The timing, however, should make us pause. It cannot have escaped anyone's attention that the responsibilities, powers and resources of LEAs have been whittled away over the past decade or more. Their influence on schools, whether for good or ill, has been minimalised.

Local management of schools, the national curriculum, the Office for Standards in Education, grant-maintained schools and other initiatives have reduced LEAs, in many cases, to the equivalent of the corner shop. Schools may choose to buy some of their services from it but there is no obligation to do so.

Most of those powers and responsibilities have been allocated to governors. Indeed, OFSTED and the Audit Commission state unequivocally in Lessons In Teamwork (HMSO 1995) that "the main aim of a governing body is to maintain and improve the standards of achievement in its school". That may also be the aim of an LEA in relation to its schools. However, it should be easier to establish a causal link between the effectiveness of a governing body and the standards of achievement in the school than between the effectiveness of the LEA and the standards of achievement in its schools, given the redistribution of power described above. The question "How much difference do they make?" is as relevant to governing bodies as it is to an LEA, if not more so.

So will OFSTED be inspecting governing bodies, as has been proposed by Teacher Training Agency head Anthea Millett and others? I suspect not, for the obvious reason that governors are volunteers and cannot be compelled to be inspected. The prospect of inspection would probably deter many would-be governors from taking up the role. At the same time, the current OFSTED framework fails to recognise the aim and roles of governors described in Lessons In Teamwork, concentrating almost exclusively on the governors' role in relation to the efficiency of the school, rather than to its effectiveness. One is bound to wonder whether it is capable of inspecting governing bodies.

One might argue, then, that a central focus of the inspection of an LEA should be on the quality and effectiveness of the support and training provided to governors. Chief inspector Chris Woodhead noted in an earlier annual report that: "Governors' training is often haphazard, and even with funding included in the overall school improvement grant some governors remain understandably but shortsightedly reluctant to spend money on their own development." While some LEAs provide a comprehensive and high-quality service to governors, governor support is something of a Cinderella subject in many others. In some of the smaller unitary authorities, unavoidably, perhaps, it is extremely limited. Grants for education support and training (GEST) do not incorporate an exclusive sum for governor training, merely an amount which should be spent on training for governors or teachers. It is perfectly possible for a governor to continue in office for many years with minimal or no access to quality training and support. This is inconsistent, to put it mildly, with the expectations placed upon governors and the LEAs' obligation to provide training. It should, in my opinion, be addressed as a priority in any inspection of LEAs.

Inspection should also ask some harder questions about the use of GEST funding by the LEA and its schools. At present, the accountability seems surprisingly lax. As long as there is a correlation between the amount delegated and the amount spent, nobody seems to worry about whether the money was actually spent on what was intended. More importantly, perhaps, nobody seems to be asking: "How much difference does it make?" OFSTED and the Audit Commission are in the best position to ask these questions and I hope they will.

DAVID MARRIOTT 60 Worlebury Hill Road Weston-super-Mare, North Somerset

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