Ofsted on Local Authorities – what lessons should we learn?Posted: July 25, 2013
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.