The stakes are very high. If a local education authority gets a good report from the Office for Standards in Education, then schools, school governors and local councillors will become more aware of the value and cost-effectiveness of its services, and it will be well placed to develop them further. If it "fails" its inspection, there will be general loss of confidence and the possibility of a "hit squad" taking over. Calderdale and Manchester both had bad reports and have recently had their post-inspection action plans thrown back forfurther work.
The general view seems to be that the first Ofsted inspections of local education authorities have been fair, but limited and inconsistent. The well-publicised rows over the Birmingham and Manchester inspections were mainly about the negative spin in Ofsted's summaries, and not about the reports as a whole.
Many chief education officers believe that external evaluation of authorities is necessary, but that the evaluation being imposed is too narrowly based. Some regret that Ofsted, whose main expertise is in schools, is in the driving seat, with the Audit Commission only as junior partners.
The Audit Commission has expertise in local government, and it inspects local councils for value for money in the light of their own policies and priorities. Its reports point to problems and solutions. Ofsted reports are much less constructive, according to people with experience of both. They focus, above all, on a local education authority's efforts to improve schools. Chief education officers say that although this is crucial, other elements, such as adult and community education, the youth service and music services, can and should contribute a great deal to raising educational standards.
David Mallen, the East Sussex county education officer, invited Ofsted to include East Sussex in the first round of LEA inspections but was turned down. So East Sussex has commissioned an independent inspection under a framework devised for the Association of Chief Education Officers with the co-operation of OFSTED two years ago.
The team, led by a former county chief education officer, Professor Margaret Maden from Keele University, fields broad experience compared with an Ofsted team. It includes a district auditor, an industrialist, Peter Smith of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, a county councillor, and a recently retired HM inspector.
They have been looking at a much wider range of services than Ofsted does, and inspecting them in the context of the authority's own priorities and the county council's broader policies on, for example, economic deprivation and environmental improvement.
"I feel we will get an inspection of the whole of the authority's work, " says David Mallen. "Ofsted reports are helpful for taking LEAs forward, but within a very narrow remit."
Other chief education officers share his view. Sunderland has a thriving outdoor centre which John Williams, the city's director of education and community services, believes makes a big contribution to educational standards, as do other community services such as libraries. Ofsted inspectors did agree to look at these aspects of the authority, but they "barely registered" in the final report, he says.
David Singleton, HM inspector in charge of local authority inspections, agrees that the framework has become less flexible and negotiable than originally planned, largely because of government policies. In future, he says, authorities will be inspected mainly on the basis of their educational development plans. If authorities believe that a particular service promotes higher standards, they should include it in their plans.
Several chief education officers pointed out that there is a parallel debate about the breadth of educational development plans. Only time will show whether the Department for Education will allow a broad approach to raising standards, or whether it will insist on a narrow concentration onits own definitions of school improvement.
The consistency of Ofsted inspections has also been criticised. Sometimes inspectors highlight the authority's standards judged against its own targets, sometimes against national standards, sometimes against "statistical neighbours".
This leaves Ofsted open to suspicions that unwitting prejudice could creep into a report's introductory summary (which is believed to be written higher up the inspectorate by people senior to the inspection team). Critics say it would be relatively simple to give clear summary statements for each authority comparing performance over time in all three measures: national averages, local targets and similarauthorities.
Some people also believe that Ofsted's procedures lack rigour. Once they have formed hypotheses about problems, they say, inspectors could test them much more systematically with officers, documentary evidence and a sample of schools. Instead, the visits to schools can appear to be fishing expeditions, looking for criticisms of the authority rather than collecting evidence about performance.
Chief officers said they could identify in inspection reports views from particular schools that they felt to be very untypical.
Many authorities regret the lack of a wider local council perspective. Again, Ofsted is inconsistent. In some authorities, leading councillors and chief officers from other council services have been interviewed. In others, such as Surrey (see right), they have been bypassed.
The most controversial element of the Ofsted framework is the inspection of class teachers in action, to try to evaluate whether schools are improving, and how much improvement is the result of the local authority's efforts. Many people in both local authorities and schools saw this as an expensive waste of time.
Almost everyone seemed to agree with the headteacher who said: "There are so many complex influences on the performance of a class teacher on a given day that it seems almost impossible to trace direct links back to the LEA."
The inspections are expensive: they take at least 185 days of HM Inspectorate time, plus 40 to 50 days by the Audit Commission. In contrast, a joint Audit Commission and Social Services inspection of a local authority social services department takes 90 days of auditors' and inspectors' time. Surrey (see story, right) reckoned its direct costs for its inspection were about Pounds 60, 000, not counting the cost of officers' and schools' time.
The cost will come down slight-ly. The data at Ofsted and local authorities will improve. Educational development and other plans will reduce the initial review time, and time in classrooms may be shortened as the second round of school inspections provides data on school improvement.
So far, authorities have found the inspections quite useful - though they learnt nothing new. "It would have been worrying if we had," several officers said. They appreciated the benchmarking data, comparing authorities with similar populations, the review of their priorities and performance, and the Audit Commission's input on value for money.
David Singleton says: "We haven't come up with a template for an effective LEA - there are half a dozen ways they can work effectively." But he says that results so far suggest that authorities that concentrate on improving schools' capacity to manage their own improvement seem to be the most successful and cost-effective.
OFSTED'S PROGRAMME OF LEA INSPECTIONS
* The main purpose of the inspection is to determine how the local education authority is fulfilling its statutory responsibilities. OFSTED assesses the LEA's priorities and the contribution which its support makes to improving the standards, quality and management of schools.
Key tasks of LEAs
* Challenge schools to raise standards.
* Provide focused support to under-performing schools.
* Focus efforts on national priorities, such as literacy and numeracy.
* Offer educational services to schools.
Stages of inspection
* Initial review: based on documents supplied by the LEA, OFSTED reports on schools, any other relevant data.Inspection team prepares an interim report. In future, the LEA's educational development plan will be the main basis for this stage.
* Interviews and inspections.
* Report of findings. The chief education officer is given the draft to comment on its factual accuracy.
* Report published: the LEA has 30 working days to publish OFSTED's report and an action plan on tackling the main deficiencies arising from the inspection.
1996-7: Seven local education authorities volunteer for pilot inspections: Staffordshire, Kirklees, Barking and Dagenham, Bedfordshire, Cornwall, Birmingham and North Somerset. Calderdale and Hackney inspected at the request of Gillian Shephard, the Secretary of State for Education .
* September 1997: Education Act gives OFSTED powers to inspect authorities.
* 1998: 14 authorities inspected: Southwark, Tower Hamlets, Manchester, Sandwell, Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire (these were judged by OFSTED to have schools with poor results), Brent, Sunderland, Kent (average results), Kingston upon Thames, Bury, Surrey (results well above average), Newham and Norfolk.
* 1999: 18 authorities to be inspected: Kingston upon Hull, Durham, Barnsley, Knowsley, Buckinghamshire, Solihull, Bromley, Islington, Northumberland, Middlesbrough, Stoke-on-Trent, Leicester, Rutland, Warwickshire, Newcastle upon Tyne, Lambeth, Haringey and Liverpool.
* All authorities are to be inspected within a 5-year programme.