Memorandum from the Local Government Association
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
3. The LGA is pleased to have the opportunity
to comment to the Committee on the recent annual report of HM
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
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
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
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
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
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
Local Government Association
4 March 2002