Meeting documents

Education Committee
Monday 2 March 1998

Date of meeting: 2 March 1998
Document type: Report
Committee: Education Committee
Title: "Changing Partners" - An Audit Commission discussion paper on the role of the Local Education Authority

Abstract (plain text version of the report)




Report of the Director of Education

To provide Members with a summary of the Audit Commission Discussion Paper "Changing Partners", and seek agreement to the response to the Discussion Paper set out at Appendix 1.

That the Committee notes the summary of the Audit Commission report and agrees the response to the 20 questions posed by the Commission set out at Appendix 1.

Redefining the role of the Local Education Authority is a prime focus of the current Integrated Service Plan. This focus was also reflected in my report to Education Committee on 24 November 1997 on Reshaping the Education Department.

There are no immediate resource implications arising from the Audit Commission Discussion Paper. However, there are, and will continue to be resource implications arising from the reshaping of the Education Department and the changing role of the LEA. The Audit Commission Paper notes that some LEAs "may find that their current levels of central expenditure are insufficient for this wide-ranging and complex role", echoing my report on reshaping the Department where Members noted that "there are a number of areas within the Education Department which will require additional resources in order to meet the challenges that lie ahead". The detailed resource implications have been addressed, in part, through the budget for 1998/99 and will continue to need to be addressed over coming years.

Not directly applicable.

The Audit Commission Report notes a key role for the Local Education Authority in ensuring equity. This role is also reflected in the proposals for the reshaping of the Department.
Members have already noted that the design of the reshaped Department is intended to allow greater cross-departmental, inter-departmental and multi agency working and to facilitate the significant contribution that the Education Service can make to the Anti-Poverty Strategy. It is particularly pleasing to see in the Audit Commission Discussion Paper suggestions for performance indicators which touch directly on issues of equity.

Roger Crouch, Director of Education. Tel: 01452 425301

"Changing Partners" - a discussion paper on the role of the Local Education Authority, Audit Commission 1997.

10.1 In January of this year, the Audit Commission published "Changing Partners", a Discussion Paper on the role of the Local Education Authority. The paper explores:

à what the role of LEAs should be;
à what LEAs need to do to perform this role effectively;
à how LEA performance can be measured and assessed;
à how LEAs should be held accountable; and
à how LEA responsibilities and powers can be best aligned.

10.2 The Discussion Paper also contains a list of 20 key questions for LEAs, central government and schools. A proposed response to these questions is set out at Appendix 1. The aim of the paper is to stimulate and aid debate at national and local level. Given the role of the Audit Commission in partnership with OFSTED in inspecting LEAs, the Paper provides some useful insights into current Audit Commission thinking on the role of the LEA.

10.3 It is important to note that the Discussion Paper is founded on the premises set out by the government in its manifesto and the White Paper "Excellence in Schools", i.e. that there is a need for an intermediate body between central government and the individual institution for the management and governance of education, and that the local education authorities should have this role.

The Paper sets out what it sees as the fundamental challenges facing local education authorities and notes that three principles lie at the heart of the government's education reforms:
à a belief in the primacy of standards;
à a recognition that school effectiveness is central to achieving standards; and
à a conviction that the principle responsibility for driving up standards must lie with schools.

It also notes that the government appears to envisage a central role for local education authorities in the "crusade to raise standards".

The Paper then goes on to identify two fundamental tensions. The first of these is between school autonomy and external intervention. LEAs are expected to intervene when schools are experiencing problems but they must also respect the principle that the main responsibility for raising standards lies with schools themselves. The second tension is between local and national interests. Helpfully, the Paper goes on to note that both in statute and in practice, the work of LEAs is about more than supporting schools and crucially, that "an LEA is a local authority with education responsibilities". The Paper emphasises that efforts in education cannot be seen in isolation from efforts to tackle issues such as environmental stewardship, community safety, social exclusion, and economic regeneration, all of which cross service and agency boundaries. The Paper states "effective local authorities view their education services not as discrete entities, but as services that are intimately connected with other parts of the authority, working together to implement an agenda that is determined as much by elected members and local stakeholders as by the requirements of central government".

The Paper argues for a shared understanding of the key issues and specifically raises the question of the powers that central government will give authorities to secure an alignment between LEA powers and the responsibilities that flow from the new role.

The Audit Commission argues that four main components of the LEA role can be identified. These are:

à articulating a vision, with a supporting strategy for education in the area;
à acting as a vehicle for improvement;
à ensuring equity - and an inclusive system of education in local schools and other institutions;
à managing trade-offs.

There is clearly a good deal of resonance between the key roles identified by the Audit Commission and the key roles agreed by the Education Committee in its response to the White Paper and which underpin the reshaping of the Department. These are:

à to secure the provision of Education for all learners;
à to support school effectiveness and improvement and the improvement of all other education services;
à to secure access to, and equity within educational provision;
à to ensure the effective management of resources.
The Discussion Paper also emphasises the importance of the network of relationships which the LEA lies at the hub. It notes that these relationships vary. With sometimes the LEA being supporting, at other times directing; sometimes it is an advocate or even a champion, at other times a judge. The challenges of "balancing pressure and support" applies right across the range of LEA activities. The Paper then goes on to look at the ways in which LEAs have attempted to define their relationships. It suggests that in response to the 1988 Act, LEAs fell into three main categories:

à traditionalist LEAs attempted to minimise the impact of local management of schools and maintain as much power as possible;
à minimalist LEAs reduced their operations to the bare statutory minimum;
à enabling LEAs remained active, but took action early in response to the wishes and aspirations of schools and to facilitate solutions to schools' problems.

It points out that over the past few years, a consensus has emerged among many of the LEAs that none of these three positions offers the right balance between school autonomy and the capacity of the LEA to pursue the role set out for it in the Standards & Framework Bill. As a consequence, LEAs are attempting to move to a partnership approach which combines the twin objective of empowered schools and an pro-active LEA.

I think many Members will agree that the Audit Commission analysis is a helpful framework for thinking about the way in which Gloucestershire's Education Service has developed. It could be argued that the Authority moved from a traditionalist style to a minimalist style with only rare incursions into an enabling style, and that the need to develop a partnership approach is now urgent and compelling.

13.1 The Audit Commission emphasises that there is not a single correct path to LEA effectiveness. Effective LEAs come in a variety of forms and reflect the diversity of local circumstances around the country. Nevertheless, there are features that all effective LEAs appear to have in common. These are:

à strategy;
à management processes; and
à culture.

13.2 The starting point for an effective strategy is an extensive evidence-based understanding of the composition and needs of the local population, and information of the pattern of local educational provision, and the historic and current quality of education. Taking this as its starting point, an effective LEA strategy will:

à express a set of aims for local provision;
à identify a small set of priorities that, if pursued vigorously, would move the LEA towards achieving its aims over a medium term period;
à identify in broad terms the actions that the authority will take to pursue these priorities.

13.3 The Report also identifies the key processes which the LEA should establish. These are:

à target-setting;
à resource allocation;
à service delivery;
à monitoring review and intervention;
à inter-authority and inter-agency working; and
à the gathering, dissemination and use of information.

13.4 Helpfully, the Audit Commission Paper emphasises the importance of the culture of the LEA. The importance of encouraging staff in the authority and schools to feel motivated and valued, understand what they should be doing, work together constructively and give enthusiastically of their best is set out in clear terms. The organisational culture of the LEA is classified under five headings:

à the character of relationships between the LEA and local schools, and between the authority and the local community;
à the leadership provided by the LEA, particularly by its CEO;
à the extent to which the LEA and schools have shared values and a shared language;
à the degree of trust between the LEA and its schools (see Appendix 2);
à the extent to which the LEA has been able to build a capacity for self-management in schools.

13.5 The Audit Commission notes that attention to all three dimensions, namely strategy, processes and culture, is necessary in any assessment of LEAs and any attempts to achieve improvement and excellence. It notes that the model requires LEAs to be, at different times, a coach, a parent and physician to the schools in their area. It also points to the challenges for LEAs, including the need for some to shed old ways of thinking and behaving at both member and officer level, the need to re-align budgets and expenditure and for some, that current levels of expenditure will be insufficient for the wide-ranging and complex role.

14.1 The Audit Commission Paper attempts to identify key performance indicators for each of the four main components of the LEA's role, namely developing a vision, acting as a vehicle for improvement, ensuring equity and managing trade-offs. It notes that vision does not lend itself obviously to quantitative indicators, but proposals for performance indicators are set out for improvement of equity and the management of trade-offs. These are set out in some detail, both for LEAs and individual schools.

14.2 The Paper also touches on issues such as Best Value and the requirement of LEAs to produce a series of plans, many of which will be subject to approval by central government. The report identifies the following plans which LEAs will either need to produce or make contributions to:

à Education Development Plan; Early Years Development Plan *
à Behaviour Support Plan;
à Asset Management Plan *
à School Organisation Plan
à Special Educational Needs Plan
à Plan for implementing government policy on primary class sizes
à Plans for responding to National Literacy * and Numeracy Initiatives
à Local Performance Plan (Best Value)
à Children's Services Plan
à Community Safety Plan
à Possible plans in response to national initiatives to combat drug abuse and social exclusion.

Plans marked * have already been produced within Gloucestershire LEA.

This section of the Paper discusses the new powers for HMCI assisted by the Audit Commission to inspect LEAs. Members have already received a report on this at the last meeting of the Education Committee. Importantly, the Audit Commission notes that the process of external inspection will leave important opportunities for LEA self-review and external audit to add value. The relationships between HMCI inspection, self-review, external audit and Best Value are also addressed.

The Audit Commission believes that the new role of LEAs within the Education system is best understood by seeing the system as "federalist". There is a balance of powers between different parts of the system on the basis of clear understanding of who can do what, when. This is based on the principle that decisions should be taken at the lowest level consistent with effective outcomes. The Paper notes that striking a balance between these different levels is a complex challenge but that within a federalist approach, three potential roles can be identified for the centre. These are:

à the right to intervene when things start to go wrong;
à involvement in the appointment of key personnel;
à the allocation of financial resources.
The Paper then assesses LEA powers against these three headings and helpfully also considers LEAs' current powers and responsibilities for post-16 education. The Paper notes that LEAs should be given the means to rectify poor performance in those areas for which they are accountable, and that the LEA is the body best placed to perform this role. The Paper then discusses in some detail key issues such as LEAs' right of entry to school, the use of powers of intervention when agreement cannot be reached, the potential problems of incompetent heads and ineffectual governing bodies, and so on.

The Paper also addresses powers of appointment for Headteachers and Governors and powers of funding.

Helpfully, the Paper also notes that problems in many parts of the country with post-16 provision - over-provision, dysfunctional competition, market failure, struggling incorporated institutions, expensive school sixth forms and small sixth forms unable to offer a broad curriculum. The Paper poses the question whether LEAs should be given extra powers and responsibilities to orchestrate local provision.

The Audit Commission concludes that LEAs stand at a critical point in their history. It notes that many LEAs are making the transition to new ways of working and attempting to manage the complexity arising from the spread of power between central government, authorities and schools. However, it also notes that failure to respond to the challenge may call into question the existence of LEAs in their current form.

The Authority will find the Audit Commission Discussion Paper an extremely welcome and helpful contribution to the debate on the future role of the LEA. Within Gloucestershire, we have begun to address many of the issues set out in the Audit Commission Paper over the past few months. However, the Audit Commission Paper reminds us that the challenges that we face are extensive and of the need to continue with the process of structural and cultural change, if we are to ensure that the Authority meets all the criteria for an effective LEA.




Andrew Foster
Audit Commission
1, Vincent Square
London, SW1P 2PN.

Dear Mr. Foster,

"Changing Partners"

Gloucestershire Local Education Authority welcomes the publication of the Audit Commission Discussion Paper "Changing Partners", as is an extremely helpful contribution to the debate over the changing role of the LEA. The Authority also welcomes the opportunity to respond to the key questions.

What is the Role of LEAs?
1. Is the definition of the role of the LEA outlined in this paper the right one?
The Audit Commission definition of the role of the LEAs is extremely helpful. Within Gloucestershire we have already identified the four key roles of the LEA as
à securing the provision of education for all learners;
à supporting school effectiveness and improvement and the improvement of all other education services;
à securing access to and equity within the educational provision;
à ensuring the effective management of resources.

There is clearly considerable resonance between these two definitions of the key roles.

2. Is there a need for a detailed list of duties, services and activities that LEAs must undertake, or is the broader "job description" already outlined by the government, felt to be adequate?
We take the view that the broader job description already outlined by government will be adequate, as it will effectively be backed up by a more detailed list of duties, services and activities in the form of the existing body of primary and secondary legislation, including various Regulations and Circulars. Whilst attempting to codify these might be helpful, it would be a resource-intensive task and would probably not be the best possible use of resources.
What are the features of the effective LEA?
3. Is the model of LEA effectiveness outlined in this Paper a helpful one?
What are the resource implications of this model - "are there limitations on some LEAs' ability to perform effectively and if there are, what can be done?"

The model of LEA effectiveness outlined in the Paper is helpful. Within Gloucestershire, the model will have resource implications for both the LEA and schools, as Gloucestershire is amongst the lowest-funded LEAs in the country. Alongside the need for direct investment in schools - a process which has begun with the coming year's budget - there will be a need to ensure that the LEA itself is resourced adequately to carry out its role effectively.

4. Where should the balance be struck between the need for LEAs to gather observational data about the performance of local schools and the need to minimise outside interference? In particular, what should be the baseline level of LEA activity in monitoring and observing school performance?
There will always be a need for a minimum of observational data about the performance of local schools. Within Gloucestershire, we believe that this can usually be achieved by agreement on the basis of our current Assigned Inspector system and school visits by senior officers with prior agreement of the school. These are needed to supplement the increasingly rich data that we have on school performance through, for example, the performance and assessment data and the LEA profile. Where such arrangements are not possible on the basis of mutual agreement, the powers proposed in the School Standards & Framework Bill and secondary legislation should be adequate, although, of course, they remain to be tested.

5. How can the cultural attributes of LEAs be assessed? How can they be improved? How can all parties ensure that issues of culture as well as issues of planning and target-setting are given proper attention.
The Audit Commission's definition of the key characteristics of a high trust LEA is a helpful starting point to answering this question. Whilst it would be difficult to draw up quantitative performance indicators in this area, the quality of relationships and the degree of trust between the different components of the Education system could be examined during the process of OFSTED/Audit Commission inspection of the LEA.

How can LEAs be assessed and held accountable?
6. What is the demarcation between the national interest in LEA performance and the local interest?
It will always be legitimate for central government to set "benchmarks" for LEA performance. Such an approach would not be legitimate if LEAs feel that they are "being set up to fail" or if government initiatives are not backed by the necessary powers and resources. The model adopted for the National Literacy Strategy is an extremely helpful one, with LEAs agreeing with the DfEE targets within an agreed range, and with central government and LEAs making resources available through the Standards Fund.
7. Is the suggested set of Performance Indicators appropriate for measuring LEA performance?
The suggested set of Performance Indicators is extremely helpful. In particular, it is extremely helpful for PIs to be set around issues such as equity.

8. Should all three suggested types of benchmark with associated targets be set? For each area of educational performance, who should set the benchmarks and targets?
There will always be a likely need for absolute, time-bounded and relative benchmarks and targets. Different types of targets will need to be set for different initiatives. The pattern of setting targets and benchmarks is likely to be complex and will include targets agreed between individual LEAs and central government, and targets agreed between individual schools and local education authorities.

9 Is the suggested approach for assessing LEAs' contribution to educational performance sufficiently rigorous or should there be a more strenuous attempt to identify relationships of cause and effect between LEA activities and school performance?
The inter-relationship between performance and inputs of various kinds is notoriously difficult to pin down. Problematic examples such as resourcing levels, or indeed the efficacy of OFSTED inspection of schools could be cited. Given the complexity of the relationship between performance and inputs, we feel that a more strenuous attempt to identify relationships of cause and effect would not be time well spent.

10. What planning processes can best put into practice the benchmark and target driven approach?
The key feature here is surely the LEA's Education Development Plan. A more explicit relationship between the Education Development Plan, the Best Value approach and the changing framework for local management of schools needs to be developed.

It is probably too late to avoid the risk of "plan proliferation" given that LEAs already have to produce or contribute to at least 12 separate plans. Over time, this proliferation of plans should be streamlined, with the Education Development Plan becoming key.

11. What would constitute unsatisfactory LEA performance?
The difficulty of establishing rigid rules is well set out in the Discussion Paper. As the Paper notes, sanctions might be required where there is:

à a significant breach of statutory duty;
à a failure to achieve targets that are deemed top priority; and/or
à a persistent or extreme failure to meet specific targets.

The distinction between an LEA that might be judged to be failing overall as opposed to one that has failing services, is a helpful one. There is surely a helpful analogy here with the current OFSTED framework for inspection of schools with the characterisation of schools as in need of special measures, i.e. failing to give pupils an acceptable level of education, or schools with serious weaknesses. The Authority agrees that such definitions are fundamentally political and should be made by politicians rather than by appointed officials.

12. Under what circumstances should an authority be designated a failing LEA, and who should construct this definition, and, given the organisational and constitutional complexities of local authorities, what should the sanctions be against failing LEAs?
The sanctions against failing LEAs will need to be decided on a case by case basis. It is likely that very few LEAs indeed will be judged to be failing, but before any LEA is judged to be failing, there will need to be clear judgements about the source of that failure and key actions which are required to remedy it. Again, there are useful analogies with failing schools, and the different steps that have been taken by local education authorities to enable them to recover. The Commission will note that relatively crude approaches based on external intervention are rarely successful and that, for example, Education Associations have been used extremely rarely.

How can inspection, audit and review add value?
13. What should be the purpose and character of external inspection and review by OFSTED/the Commission? What is the best way of putting together the regime of LEA inspections and the regime of Best Value?
Again, the key source here should be the authority's Education Development Plan and for all parties to seek to secure maximum co-ordination between separate processes.

14. Is the approach suggested in the Paper the best way of aligning the processes of self-review/self-improvement, external inspection/review and external audit?
The approach suggested in the Paper is certainly helpful, but should be reviewed in practice.

How can LEAs' responsibilities and powers be aligned?
15. How precisely will the White Papers' and Bill's proposals allow LEAs to intervene in schools in difficulty and schools causing concern?
The vast majority of intervention and school support will be on the basis of mutual agreement. Where this is not possible, the new powers in the Standards and Framework Bills should be sufficient.

16. Is there a case for licensing LEAs to operate different regimes of intervention?
Not as such, but the LEA job description and the code of practice should be sufficiently flexible to take account of local circumstances and local practice.

17. How can LEAs' responsibilities for educational performance be best aligned with their proposed powers in relation to the appointment of heads?
This remains a serious cause of concern, albeit in only relatively few cases. The proposals suggested by the Audit Commission are helpful.

18. Should LEAs be given any additional role in improving the standards of governing bodies. Could central government provide any assistance to this improvement process?
LEAs already have sufficient statutory duties in relation to governor support. There now needs to be a clear focus in enabling governors to carry out effectively their role of promoting high standards. An emphasis by government on this issue, backed by resources through specific grant mechanisms, would be helpful.

19. Precisely what freedoms and constraints will LEAs face in relation to their funding powers as a result of the proposals in the White Papers?
The key here is not the precise freedoms and constraints faced by LEAs but the need to shift the terms of debate from one about percentage levels of delegation to schools to the demarcation of responsibility for particular services and issues between schools and LEAs. The different characteristics of individual LEAs and their schools needs to be recognised in this process. To put it simply, what is appropriate in a compact urban authority with large primary and secondary schools will not be appropriate in a rural county, where, by necessity, many schools are below average size.

20. What powers, if any, should LEAs be given (or give up) to address continuing difficulties in the post 16 sector?
There is clearly a need for a more co-ordinated approach to the issue of planning post 16 provision. Within Gloucestershire, we have established a Strategic Post 16 Forum bringing together secondary Headteachers, college principals and the LEA. There is a strong case for the school organisation committee to be given greater powers over the planning of post 16 provision.

I hope these comments are helpful.

Yours sincerely,

Roger Crouch
Director of Education.



The Audit Commission Paper identifies the key characteristics of a High Trust LEA as:

à willingness to listen to the views of Heads, Governors and teachers;

à the extent to which schools are involved in forming overall policy and strategy;

à the extent to which schools are aware of, understand and support the LEA strategy;

à the openness of an LEA about its budget-making process;

à the degree to which schools feel that the funding formula is transparent and fair;

à the quality and extent of formal communication channels between the LEA and schools;

à the ease with which schools and senior management of the LEA can make contact with each other outside the formal communication channels;

à the speed with which the LEA responds to schools requests;

à the degree to which the LEA keeps promises and commitments made to schools in general, and particular schools;

à the degree to which schools are confident that the LEA is on their side, and will treat them fairly;

à the extent to which schools receive consistent messages from all parts of the LEA - from Members, Officers throughout the Education Service and Officers from other Departments.



The Audit Commission Paper identifies the key characteristics of a High Trust LEA as:

à willingness to listen to the views of the Heads, Governors and teachers;

à the extent to which schools are involved in forming overall policy and strategy;

à the extent to which schools are aware of, understand and support the LEA strategy;

à the openness of an LEA about its budget-making process;

à the degree to which schools feel that the funding formula is transparent and fair;

à the quality and extent of formal communication channels between the LEA and schools;

à the ease with which schools and senior management of the LEA can make contact with each other outside the formal communication channels;

à the speed with which the LEA responds to schools requests;

à the degree to which the LEA keeps promises and commitments made to schools in general, and particular schools;

à the degree to which schools are confident that the LEA is on their side, and will treat them fairly;

à the extent to which schools receive consistent messages from all parts of the LEA - from Members, Officers throughout the Education Service and Officers from other Departments.