Select Committee on Education and Skills Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum from the Local Government Association (SQ06)


    —  The report's acknowledgement of the contribution of local government to many aspects of educational development is welcomed.

    —  The report gives insufficient attention to underlying causes of issues and possible solutions, and hence is of limited value to policy-makers.

    —  OFSTED's approach to quality assurance merits continuing review and refinement.

  1.  This Memorandum is prepared in response to the Committee's invitation to provide written submissions on the recent annual report of HM Chief Inspector, Standards and Quality in Education 2000-01, published on 5 February 2002.

  2.  The Local Government Association (LGA) was formed from a merger of the Association of County Councils, the Association of District Councils and the Association of Metropolitan Authorities on 1 April 1997. Currently the LGA has just under 500 members including 260 shire district councils, 36 metropolitan district councils, 34 county councils, 27 unitary authorities, 33 London boroughs, and 20 Welsh authorities. In addition, the LGA represents police authorities, fire authorities and passenger transport authorities. The LGA provides a national voice for local communities in England and Wales; its members represent over 50 million people, employ over two million staff, and spend over £65 billion a year on local services. LGA members are major stakeholders in all aspects and phases of education: as providers, as users of education and skills, and as agencies in the forefront of addressing the social, economic and cultural consequences of educational underachievement.

  3.  The LGA is pleased to have the opportunity to comment to the Committee on the recent annual report of HM Chief Inspector.

  4.  The LGA welcomes the Committee's First Report of Session 2001-02 on the work of OFSTED and is broadly in agreement with all of the Committee's conclusions and recommendations. This establishes the context within which comments on HM Chief Inspector's annual report are now offered.

  5.  The LGA welcomes the report's acknowledgement of the vital contribution of Local Education Authorities (LEAs) to many strands of current educational reform.

  6.  For example the report identifies the significant contribution of LEAs to the success of Education Action Zones (EAZ). That section of the report concluded that it would be important for good work by EAZs to be continued. One way to support this would be to recognise that LEAs are likely to be major players in facilitating local collaborative networks of schools to carry on such work after EAZs move beyond their statutory phase.

  7.  The report also acknowledges the considerable further developments which LEAs have made to the quality and effectiveness of their services across a very broad range of activities.

  8.  The report considers that "few LEAs. . . are having a major impact on standards in schools" (introductory commentary). In paragraph 408, dealing with LEA school improvement services, the report states that "Evidence continues to suggest that it is only the good or very good services that have a marked impact on standards in schools". This carries a curious implication for services judged by OFSTED as satisfactory (as distinct from good or very good): the service is satisfactory but it does not have a marked impact on standards in schools. If this is the case, it suggests either that there is a mismatch between the remit LEAs are given and what they are expected to achieve, or that OFSTED needs to refine its methods for discerning some of the longer term and more subtle connections between LEA activity and standards in schools.

  9.  At several points the report emphasises the need for LEAs to intervene earlier to prevent schools from sinking into difficulties, without acknowledging the marked tension between this and OFSTED's criticism of LEAs for deploying school improvement services in situations other than where problems have already become obvious. Effective early intervention and preventative work require levels of involvement and interaction well beyond office-based monitoring of statistics.

  10.  The LGA believes that all aspects of local government should be subject to rigorous quality assurance, and wishes as always to work in constructive collaboration with all of the agencies involved in quality assurance. In the case of OFSTED's inspections of LEAs, there is a need to continue to explore ways to refine and enhance the methods used to bring them closer to the best quality assurance practices.

  11.  The levels of reliability and validity of OFSTED's inspections of LEAs do not yet carry the same degree of confidence that applies to OFSTED's inspections of schools. Impressions, opinions and value judgements appear to play a larger role than in school inspections where actual observation of practice has a greater place. In the main, OFSTED's LEA inspection team members have no personal experience of working either as Directors of Education or as elected members. They do not have the depth of relevant personal experience which applies to most school inspection teams. Their function requires them to make judgements about aspects of locally elected politicians' choices and decisions which are specifically political in nature; it is not obvious that HMI are equipped to do this, especially when, as will be argued below, the annual report studiously avoids critical evaluation of policy making at national level. OFSTED's habit of concentrating attention during inspections on issues which it has already decided represent either very weak or very strong practice results in the excessive polarisation of inspection results, so that two LEAs where the vast majority of the work is carried out in identical ways and with identical effect can emerge with widely different overall gradings.

  12.  One of the observations made about OFSTED by some who work in schools is that its judgements about standards are delivered unaccompanied by any developmental processes. This can be unhelpful where the judgements appear not to acknowledge fully either the extent of the efforts already made to address issues, or the nature of some of the impediments to progress, and where they appear to offer no new practical solutions. Given that the immediate effect of adverse judgements by OFSTED may be to exacerbate rather than relieve the problems faced by schools, this is not a trivial observation.

  13.  The point of making it here is that much the same might be said of the Chief Inspector's report, which summarises judgements in terms which neither include nor invite very much in the way of critical evaluation or reflection, and which are short on practical advice for the future. Some of the commentary on these judgements includes statements of the obvious, verging on tautology, as in the following statement (paragraph 280), which must be true by virtue of the definition of "serious weaknesses".

    Almost all schools that have been judged . . . to have unsatisfactory teaching or leadership, provide poor value for money or have not improved sufficiently since the previous inspection are placed into special measures, or designated as having serious weaknesses.

  14.  The same absence of real information is found in paragraph 282 which suggests that the main reasons for the decline in standards which takes some schools into special measures are usually:

    low or falling standards, poor leadership and management, (or) a high proportion of unsatisfactory teaching.

  These are the descriptors of poor standards, not the reasons for them. Throughout, the report does not explore the causes of phenomena very deeply, beyond the necessary acknowledgement that some schools operate in "challenging circumstances". In particular, the report avoids any acknowledgement that some of the problems in schools have causes which are systemic in scale, and which include the unintended consequences of national policies and regulatory frameworks.

  15.  For example, many features of the national system materially encourage and reinforce competition between secondary schools, in ways which widen the gap between those which are "succeeding" and those which are "failing", enhancing the advantages of the former and deepening the problems of the latter. Yet the report laments the apparent reluctance of some secondary schools to work collaboratively with others, and the widening gap between the highest and lowest attaining secondary schools, without any exploration of causes or possible solutions.

  16.  This lack of acknowledgement of systemic issues appears to place a disproportionate onus on those working in some schools to solve problems which are not of their own making. It implies a blame culture which is unlikely to attract or motivate those with the skills which are needed in such situations.

  17.  The observation in paragraph 283 that:

    A significant number of schools going into special measures experience difficulties in recruiting and retaining teachers of a high enough calibre

    illustrates the report's reluctance to acknowledge even a fairly obvious cause and effect, and the vicious circle in which some schools find themselves. The report does not acknowledge the wide range of strategies which have already been attempted with genuine diligence in certain situations. It also presents no suggested solutions, implying that Ofsted has no new ideas to offer for breaking out of these multiple problems.

  18.  The absence of real attention to causes and possible solutions makes the report much less helpful to policy-makers than it could be, and perhaps should be. Equally limiting is the report's treatment of the processes of school improvement: readers too often have to infer OFSTED's understanding of important issues. The term "leadership and management" occurs frequently as a blanket justification of judgements, but is not amplified in ways which provide practical pointers to action. Does OFSTED believe that there are certain set approaches which "work", and if so what are they? Or that successful leadership in education is to a large extent contingent on a host of local variables? And if the latter, how is it judged, and whose views need to be taken into account?

  19.  Issues of this kind point towards the benefits of gradually moving to a different model of quality assurance which attaches greater importance to the adequacy of systems and processes for self-evaluation.

  20.  Another example of the report's unhelpfulness to policy-makers is the section on Fresh Start Schools, which simply records the varied fortunes of this group of schools without drawing any conclusions or offering any pointers for the future.

  21.  On a point of detail, whoever drafted the text appears sufficiently unfamiliar with the work of SACREs as to believe that the initials stand for "Statutory Advisory Commissions" (paragraph 434) rather than "Standing Advisory Councils".

  22.  Despite the wide and recently expanded remit of OFSTED, much of the report's approach conveys a somewhat narrow focus with little apparent interest in multi-agency and multi-disciplinary approaches to issues. This interest only appears to arise in the report's criticisms of corporate planning in local authorities: criticisms which fail to acknowledge the continuing lack of co-ordination between the planning regimes of different central government departments.

  23.  It can be argued that knowledge about education provision is of three kinds, and from three sources: knowledge from inspection, knowledge from research, and knowledge from the experience of practice. OFSTED's work would be more useful to the future development of good practice if it articulated much more clearly than at present what the connections are between its inspection findings and the other sources of knowledge. A particularly important issue is the extent to which the criteria used by OFSTED to determine what counts as good practice are really driven by reputable educational research. Without more debate of these issues it will remain unclear how OFSTED's purposes are balanced between advancing best practice and imposing one particular view.

Local Government Association

4 March 2002

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