Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by the Confederation of Education Service Managers (ConfEd) (OFS 07)

  Thank you for asking the Confederation of Education Service Managers to comment to the Select Committee on the work of OFSTED. This is in response to your letter of 12 September to Chris Waterman.

  The Confederation of Education Service Managers (ConfEd) is the professional association representing education service managers, who work in the management of local education services in England and Wales, Education and Library Boards in Northern Ireland and related organisations.

  Your invitation to comment on the wide range of OFSTED's work is welcomed. At this stage, it would be useful to concentrate on the report produced by OFSTED, in conjunction with the Audit Commission on Local Education Authority Support for School Improvement 1996-2001.

  ConfEd, which is a learned society in legal terms and through its constitution, will be pleased to comment on matters relating to the work of the Committee and will be pleased to hear from you in the future.

October 2002



  The points in this short submission on the work of OFSTED make reference to the report "Local Education Authority Support for School Improvement 1996-2001" published 18 September 2002.


  1.  The comments made by HMCI on the work of local education authorities have, overall, been welcomed by staff working for those bodies. The first inspection of the 150 LEAs described 109 as satisfactory, or better. Of the 41 described as unsatisfactory, or worse, 18 have been re-inspected and 11 of those have been described as at least satisfactory. It is important to note that the first round of inspections specifically targeted LEA areas known to be facing difficulties. This tended to give a negative slant to early publicity. LEAs have improved significantly and, in the words of HMCI, "it augurs well for the future".

    Members may wish to question HMCI on ways in which local education service management can be encouraged to maintain and accelerate service improvement.

  2.  Media coverage of the report tended to interpret comments by HMCI, about the lack of a proven relationship between the quality of an LEA and overall standards of attainment, as a negative criticism of LEAs in general. The report itself describes the difficult process of establishing and interpreting correlations across a range of complex factors which, inevitably, makes proof difficult. The key comment is that other factors, such as the effect of disadvantage, are stronger. A more useful interpretation of these comments is that the LEAs fulfil essential and statutory duties and create the conditions in which schools can thrive but that, currently, differences in socio-economic conditions are much more significant. That is not to say that the work of the LEA is somehow irrelevant to the success of the schools. The content of the report includes many examples of LEAs directly improving schools (90% of schools in difficulties were improved by the direct work of LEAs) and creating a culture and climate of progress.

    Members may wish to question HMCI on the complexity of methods of assessing correlations amongst selected factors and the need for development and refinement of methods of inspection.

  3.  The period covered is 1996-2001. Mention is made of local government reorganisation and the creation of 50 new LEAs. The impact was far greater than this because many existing LEAs were broken up into smaller units with theoretically "continuing" LEAs reduced in size, by as much as 50%. This was taking place mainly in 1997, just as inspection was commencing. New organisations were set up and required a settling in period after that, coinciding with much of the inspection period. At the end of the period, modernisation of local government was being introduced, the effects of which are more fully discussed in the report.

    Members may wish to question HMCI on the extent to which LEAs have had to concentrate on organisational issues and to ask him to comment on the potential benefits of the period of greater stability from now on.

  4.  Reference is made to the increasing number of written plans required of LEAs in a climate of rapidly changing legislative frameworks and competing and conflicting imperatives, such as parental preferences on admissions and reducing surplus places.

    Members may wish to question HMCI on whether the right balance is being struck between accountability and progress on the one hand and detailed preparation of written plans on the other.

  5.  Following useful work by the Audit Commission (reports such as "Held in Trust" and subsequent work), the role of the LEA has become far more clearly defined. Much of that definition has been recent (most notably October 2000 for the DfES publication on the role of the LEA). The role of the LEA in regeneration and Local Strategic Plans is a further development.

    Members may wish to question HMCI on the recentness of the definition of the role of LEAs and the extent to which this may affect future inspection and performance.

  6.  The Code of Practice for LEA/School Relations goes into some detail on restricting access of LEA inspectors to schools, using statistical and other available evidence to make judgements on quality. On the other hand, LEAs are expected to detect problems in such matters as school leadership before they adversely affect pupil performance.

    Members may wish to question HMCI on the extent to which restrictions on the role of LEAs may inhibit their ability to fulful their expected function as parent, child and community advocates.

  7.  The need to build management capacity in LEAs is strongly supported by ConfEd. The LEA Improvement Forum was conceived by DfES and ConfEd working together with others, particularly TEN, and support for its work is greatly appreciated. Recently, the Audit Commission published a report on difficulties in recruitment to public service and included comments on the impact of the creation of inappropriately negative images on morale and subsequently recruitment. Recently, Government has made strongly positive comments about the role of LEAs and the expectation of their involvement in raising educational standards.

    Members may wish to question HMCI on the past morale of LEA staff and perceptions of prospects for the future.

    (The reference to the Virtual Staff College in the report is appreciated: this is a branch of ConfEd and an important element of the collegiality which the Confederation promotes).

  8.  Policies on inclusion, including special educational needs are complex to devise and difficult to implement because this area is full of contradictions and dichotomies. LEA staff work under considerable emotional pressure in trying to balance the aspirations of parents with the availability of resources and the concerns of headteachers, who face the dilemma of being asked to admit to the school children whose special needs are likely to affect the statistics published on overall attainment. Schools find it difficult to reconcile issues of standards and inclusion and look to LEAs for mediation. The report mentions the need for Government to consider the various tensions, including the problem of funding.

    Members may wish to question HMCI on the extent to which regulations and guidance contain contradictions and dichotomies which may inhibit the ability of LEAs to establish and implement clear policies on inclusion.

  9.  Best Value appears to have had limited impact. The principles of examining services to see how they could be better provided are accepted by LEAs but the requirement for Best Value performance plans creates a complex bureaucratic framework. Brokering services in addition to making their own provision introduces complexities and tensions into the work of LEAs.

    Members may wish to question HMCI on the extent to which a simpler structure, based on expectations and outcomes rather than detailed written planning could promote higher standards.

  10.  The recommendations in the report are generally welcomed. In particular, the statement that LEAs require funding which is adequate for the job they are asked to do is appreciated. Government is taking steps in this direction and intends introducing a new funding structure in April 2003. However, the framework is still only in preparation at this late stage.

    Members may wish to question HMCI on the extent to which more research and modelling is required in order to assess the level of resources necessary to enable LEAs to sustain and improve the quality of their work.

  These are some of the issues which would benefit from further discussion and others will emerge over time.

  ConfEd would like to put on record its appreciation of the constructive approach taken by HMCI David Bell and his predecessor Mike Tomlinson. A common philosophy of constructive criticism and the desire to look forward and promote improvement are now evident within the work of OFSTED. To return a comment, this augurs well for the future.

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