Ofsted on Local Authorities – what lessons should we learn?

For those of us who believe that there needs to be a revived role for local authorities in education, the Ofsted reports on Norfolk and the Isle of Wight just published make challenging reading. However much one may think that there is a political agenda behind this inspection process, it’s difficult to deny the evidence presented that says that these authorities have not had enough impact on standards in their area.

The report on the Isle of Wight is particularly damning and finds hardly any positives. It says that “(There has been) poor corporate and strategic leadership. The approach to school improvement has lacked coordination and it does not have the confidence of schools. Key decisions about resource deployment, school organisation and place planning have been characterised by poor analysis, limited consultation and weak implementation. This has resulted in a large proportion of requires improvement or inadequate schools. A lack of rigour in monitoring and challenge, mostly due to poor use of performance data, means that the local authority neither knows the schools well nor intervenes early enough.”

This has to amount to a major failure of local political leadership. Norfolk is a rather better picture, with some clear evidence of improvement both in local authority processes and in outcomes for pupils. But the charge remains that there is a legacy of inadequacy and inconsistency which hasn’t yet been fully addressed and that standards are not as high as they should be.

What Ofsted doesn’t do is try to explain why things are as they are. But on close reading there are some clues to be found. It will be important, if there is to be any return to local democracy in education to understand what can get in the way of it being effective.

There is obviously the double whammy of rapid academisation and local government cuts. Many authorities heard the message that education was to be left to schools and the market and so saw education departments, and school improvement teams in particular, as an easy cut. Ofsted is now reminding them that, in relation to many schools, the responsibility for standards has not gone away and that a belief in community leadership gives councils at least a moral right and duty to identify inadequate performance in academies and free schools as well.

Less often commented on though is what has happened to the balance of the relationship between schools and local authorities. The Norfolk report says that “resistance or ambivalence of a significant minority of schools to developing federations, or widening collaborative working, is slowing the pace of improvement.” The suggestion throughout is that some schools won’t listen. It has been the case, ever since the GM days of the 1990’s, that some schools have heard the message of autonomy as meaning that they need not listen to anyone else’s opinion or take any account of any wider interest or concerns. This can include other local schools as well as councils. Increasingly over the years law and policy have reinforced this position and local authorities have increasingly lost any many of the real levers which might have enabled them to intervene.

Against this background, challenging schools about their performance is genuinely difficult. Many local authority staff feel disempowered. Strong and skilful local authorities have found ways of holding their own. But in too many cases this has not happened. And practically, it has been very hard to recruit to local authority roles – especially given the very substantial growth seen in heads’ salaries! – and to persuade elected members that school improvement is a priority.

Any change will need to take into account these kinds of factors. Size and capacity may also be an issue. The Isle of Wight has six secondary schools and a population of 140,000. Its capacity to afford and to make effective use of real expertise in secondary education, for example, is clearly very limited. The recent proliferation of small unitaries – 35 or nearly 25% of education authorities with populations under 200,000 – may well be an issue when we start to rebuild.

Many agree that there will need to be more decentralisation and more planning in education. But it will not be a simple process and it will need to address deep seated attitudes and relationships as well as political, financial and intellectual capacity. But it is easy to forget that, although some local authorities are far from perfect, nor are schools, nor is central government and (heresy!) nor is every Ofsted team. Learning lessons rather than just dumping blame is something we do need to get better at.

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4 Comments on “Ofsted on Local Authorities – what lessons should we learn?”

  1. The increasingly political nature of the role of Ofsted should make us wary of both its reports and its conclusions/recommendations. That is not to say that there is nothing in the criticisms of the Isle or Wight and Norfolk reports but whatever the failures in those areas this cannot be taken as a general criticism of local authorities any more than revolutions about incompetent doctors can be taken as a criticism of doctors in general.

    I note that early on in the Isle of Wight report it is said in passing “The number of local authority education personnel has reduced considerably in recent years” before going on to list the many tasks that the authority has failed to carry out effectively.

    But much more important is that the case for revived local authority involvement in education will only stand up to scrutiny if it is accompanied with proposals for improving the openness of LA procedures and the quality of its democracy. Too many town halls are run as secretive units in which great efforts are made to keep local residents out of the picture. That has to change and to change in ways that need to be carefully detailed. These Ofsted reports make no such proposals. The shame is that neither, as far as I know, does the Labour Party. That has to change too if Labour is to offer a credible alternative to the policies of the Coalition.

    • Richard Hatcher says:

      David Pavett calls for ‘proposals for improving the openness of LA procedures and the quality of its democracy’. I agree. The following proposals may be useful. They come from a response in July by Birmingham Against the Cuts (which I drafted) to the city council’s recent consultation paper on a Neighbourhood Strategy.
      Our alternative: Transforming Place, Transforming Birmingham, through real Participatory Democracy

      The principle we start from is this: People have the right to participate in the decisions which affect their lives – where there is power there must be effective public participation.

      The exact nature of the structures and processes to make this possible can’t be spelled out in advance; they themselves should be the outcome of collective public deliberation – and there are many examples internationally to draw on. But we can briefly outline five radical reforms which are needed to make participative as well as representative local democracy
      a reality in Birmingham:

      1. Democratised Ward Committees
      2. Public participation in District Committees
      3. Strategic city-wide service committees with public participation
      4. Public participation in Scrutiny Committees
      5. Needs-based Community Budgeting

      1. Democratised Ward Committees

      a) The internal procedures of WC meetings – the way they are run – need to be redesigned to encourage the maximum of public discussion, including opening up the agendas and reducing the dominance of councillors. Too often WCs are about managing the community rather than enabling it to speak and have its voices heard.
      b) WCs need to be able to put proposals onto the agendas of DCs and speak to their proposals.

      2. Public participation in District Committees

      a) DCs should include elected non-councillor representatives of WCs with speaking and voting rights, though while still leaving councillors with the majority of votes.
      b) DCs should meet at times and places convenient for local public participation.
      c) There should be regular District-level open forums, at least twice a year.

      3. Strategic city-wide service committees with public participation

      The Cabinet system was introduced into local government by Blair in 1997 in order to centralise power and enable faster decision-making. The result has been a profound democratic deficit as power is monopolised by a small minority of councillors.

      The previous Committee system – which is still legal and which some councils still use – had two major advantages.

      First, it meant that far more councillors were involved in policy-making. At present Cabinet members responsible for service areas have no committee of colleagues to work with, leaving them isolated and too dependent on officers.

      Second, and crucial from the point of view of participatory democracy, council committees could co-opt lay members onto the committee and sub-committees. This was common practice among especially the more radical Labour Councils in the 1970s and 80s, where the co-opted members were often elected by various groups as their representatives, with voice but without vote. It was an important factor in the effectiveness of these Councils in tackling issues of gender and ethnic equality. This is exactly what is needed today to tackle the key issues that Birmingham council faces.

      For example, take youth unemployment. What is desperately needed is a strategic advisory committee at the top level of the local authority bringing together elected representatives of the key interests, including of course the trade unions and young people themselves.

      These committees could be set up now, even with the Cabinet in place. There is nothing to stop a Cabinet member from setting up an advisory committee in her or his area of responsibility with other councillors on it and with invitations to relevant interest groups, or districts and wards, to elect representatives onto it.

      4. Public participation in Scrutiny Committees

      Scrutiny Committees also need to be opened up to public participation, in a number of ways, for example:

      a) Participation in public inquiries – a model that BCC has already adopted but needs to be expanded, for example by setting up working sub-committees on specific issues with public participants.
      b) Procedures to enable relevant public bodies, including Ward committees, to put items on Scrutiny agendas and speak to them.

      5. Needs-based Community Budgeting

      The ‘Transforming Place’ report refers to:

      Neighbourhood Community Budgeting – in Shard End, Castle Vale and Balsall Heath – where research and mapping of resources, consultation on priorities, and partnership planning of actions have been taking place over the past 12 months leading to Pilot Operational Plans being submitted recently to The Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG). (p21)

      There may be lessons to be drawn from this experience but genuine Needs-based Community Budgeting means a different starting point: not the needs of government but the needs of local communities and the city as a whole. It starts not from what government allocates to the council in its latest austerity handout but what the people of Birmingham need to provide the services they are entitled to. The process of creating it is not one of people and communities deciding what services to cut and what to try and save, but one of deciding what is needed and is worth fighting for as a community and as a city.

      The council should launch a needs-based budget process as follows:
      a) local communities come together to discuss and decide what their key needs are, and then develop, with technical experts, what projects are needed to meet those needs and what their costs are.
      b) a similar process should be available to city-wide issue- based groups – eg around disability, or transport, or youth unemployment.
      c) The various projects then need to be brought together on a city-wide basis and a costed overall City Needs-Based Development Plan drawn up, taking into account the priority for the more socially-deprived areas of the city and groups most in need.
      d) The Plan, created and owned by the people of Birmingham, then needs to be the basis both of what service provision is possible and of a massive popular campaign aimed at government demanding the increased resources needed to meet the needs of the one million people of the city.

      Birmingham Against the Cuts
      July 2013

  2. Paul Martin says:

    This is an important and difficult message, that local authorities have to earn their role in education, not just assume it. I believe there is a chronic need for Labour Councillors to inform themselves and ensure that they take the best available advice.