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City heads' vote sparks inquiry

Dorothy Lepkowska and Michael Prestage report on power struggles entangling chief education officers, heads and governors. An inquiry has been launched in Newcastle upon Tyne into the running of the city's education department by its director, Nils Purser.

It is understood the inquiry will focus on allegations made by primary heads, who passed a vote of no confidence in Mr Purser two weeks ago. It will be headed by the council's chief executive Geoff Cook.

Mr Purser is believed to have said privately that he does not intend to resign over the issue. In the meantime the committee has launched a "fresh start initiative" to appease heads and governors and give them a greater say in education policy-making.

The dissatisfaction with Mr Purser's management of the city's education service has its roots in plans to get rid of surplus places two years ago. Heads claimed that schools were being named in closure or merger plans but that no rationalisation plans had been agreed.

One said: "Many were left feeling battered and bruised by the process even though there was agreement among heads that something needed to be done about the surplus places problem."

There was also concern that local authority advisers were spending more time on Office for Standards in Education inspection teams than in helping schools deal with problems. It has been claimed that Mr Purser put pressure on a primary adviser to pass a failing primary, but when an OFSTED inspection team later went in it also criticised standards at the school.

Two weeks ago a meeting of primary heads voted by 52-0, with six abstentions, in favour of a motion of no confidence in Mr Purser.

Another headteacher said: "There are issues here of personal management style and competence, as well as pragmatism prevailing over principle."

The "fresh start initiative", launched on Tuesday, will include the creation of a standing conference on planning education, which will set out a common agenda for policy and service development. An early task will be to set out a vision for the future of education in Newcastle into the next century. A number of "task forces" will also be set up to look at issues such as truancy, school effectiveness, raising standards and post-16 opportunities.

Education committee chairman Darren Murphy declined to comment on the controversy surrounding Mr Purser because it is likely he would sit on any disciplinary or appeals committee should one need to be convened.

But he said: "The education service is not as good as it could be. We have to have a vision of education in Newcastle which involves raising standards.

The controversy surrounding Mr Purser, who was unavailable for comment this week, coincides with increasing concern among administrators about the rising number of disputes between local politicians and chief education officers.

Last month, the Society of Education Officers and the Local Government Management Board announced plans for a training package and mutual support system to help CEOs.

During the past decade, more than 50 have left their jobs prematurely, either through ill health, early retirement or redundancy, The high turnover reflects a mixture of increased financial constraints, sweeping changes in political control and growing concern about educational standards.

Newcastle has had four chief education officers since 1982.

Two years ago heads in the London borough of Westminster passed a motion of no confidence in their education director, Dinah Tuck. She is not currently working as chief education officer, but is still employed by the council.

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