Council education departments may largely be ignored by the Department for Education & Skills, but they are working hard to improve schools. Ofsted has recognised Calderdale MBC, Enfield LBC and Norfolk CC who have all managed to turn performance around, largely by changing the nature of their relationship with their schools.
Fred Corbett, assistant education director at Norfolk, tells how the council managed to turn around its schools: 'The director, Bryan Slater, and I both started six years ago. We found there were a disproportionate number of schools being put into special measures. It seemed the education authority had lost contact with them in the preceding five years, when there was a buy-back programme going on,' he says.
'In a large shire council like Norfolk there are often problems with the large number of small schools. They are vulnerable because the loss of just one staff member can have a big impact,' says Mr Corbett.
Mr Slater and Mr Corbett's action plan consisted of a range of strategies.
They used school results performance indicators to measure their progress, as well as a new self-review system that gave annual gradings on eight areas of the inspection process. They also set up a similar grading system for the schools themselves.
Mr Corbett adds: 'Over the past six years we have had to close down one primary school, negotiate a few staff leaving, and withdraw delegation from another school where governors couldn't deal with the situation alone. But our Ofsted grade has gone up from the four-five range to the two-one range in the same period.'
Ian Dodgson, acting director of schools and children's services at Calder dale, says: 'We were the first authority to be inspected by Ofsted, and it found a range of problems. Nine of our 15 secondaries were grant maintained, which is a good indication of the lack of trust between schools and the education authority. When Ofsted inspected again in 1997-98 they gave an ultimatum - sort things out or the education service will be outsourced.'
Mr Dodgson was recruited as deputy director soon afterwards.
'Things like payroll, which were previously being done by heads, became our responsibility. We have lifted a significant administrative burden from schools as a result of the changes,' says Mr Dodgson.
'Modernisation of local government happened at around the same time, which really helped everybody - officers and members - to move on,' he adds.
To measure improvement, a management information team was formed. Its role was to analyse key stage data, GCSE results, ethnicity and social exclusion indicators. The council now has an individual pupil tracking system.
Mr Dodgson says: 'We are now able to put improvement in the context of what's been happening at individual schools - if a roof collapses or a key staff member leaves, for example. We've had to remove a few primary heads over the past few years, but they have been the only big casualties.'
Enfield's assistant director of education, Neil Rousell, has been responsible for improvement at the council since 2000, when it received a critical Ofsted inspection. Three years later it praised his strategy.
In 2001 the education department started redesigning its school improvement service to ensure it was core to the work of the council, and greater emphasis was given to assisting schools in managing their own improvement.
'This signalled a fundamental change in the nature of our relationship with schools,' says Mr Rousell.
'From paternalistic - protecting them - to challenging them.'
A new schools self evaluation framework designated them into one of four categories - advanced, developed, satisfactory and unsa tisfactory. Each school underwent an annual review with a designated link officer and used its own evidence of improvement.
In its 2003 report, Ofsted said: 'Two radical changes have had far-reaching benefits. The restructuring of the school improvement service altered the balance of its work, sharpened its focus on raising standards, strengthened work with other services and raised its standing in the eyes of secondary schools. The redesigning of the system for monitoring and review improved the authority's knowledge of its schools and increased its capacity to identify weaknesses early, while enhancing schools' potential for self-management.'
A new Good schools framework consisted of a well-defined and transparent system, developed in consultation with schools, providing clear categories of need and sensitive triggers for additional support.
Mr Rousell adds: 'We also introduced a new Standards Forum, with elected members and head teachers, to review all s10 reports on schools. We've used this approach to spread good practice.'
This year Ofsted concluded: 'Leadership of services to support school improvement, previously satisfactory, is now good. Management and communication systems have improved considerably, existing expertise has been thoroughly examined and a number of crucial appointments made.'
The road to improvement
??? Formed an alliance with the Fischer Family Trust, which helped it analyse and improve data collection and management
??? Recruited new educational advisers who had experience as head teachers, and now have a 'bank' of heads who can take over the management of schools if necessary
??? Set up their own performance management system - which predated national standards
??? Engaged heads and governors in the improvement process, and encouraged a school self-evaluation programme
??? Developed a new record system for school visits
??? Made inspection a core function for all departments of the education authority
??? Dev eloped a new social inclusion programme that could be linked to school performance.
??? The advisory service became the 'education effectiveness team' after a complete restructure. Its aim was to challenge schools as well as support them
??? Improved data collection and management, to show schools that other pupils at the same key stages in comparable authorities were doing better at GCSE
??? Set new targets for pupil achievement
??? Set up a new member and chief executive support system, to bring education back into the corporate focus of the council
??? Developed a new planning model for all sections of the authority, including personnel and psychology, with targets for improvement that were also communicated to schools
??? Initiated an Investors In People programme across the department
??? Identified and clarified roles and responsibilities between the council
??? Focused its support for the national literacy and numeracy strategies in both key stages one and two
??? Structured its key stage three team to focus on building upon the primary strategies and to provide a focus on teaching and learning in the secondary sector
??? Set challenging targets to ensure that schools began to focus on individual pupils and their learning achievements
??? Strengthened its team of specialists working with schools
??? Produced a comprehensive inclusion policy to tackle underperformance in vulnerable groups of pupils
??? Focused on rapidly improving those schools that had been designated by Ofsted as needing special measures.