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Code sets out councils' reach

The battle for the control of schools is about to begin in earnest with the publication by Stephen Byers, the standards minister, of the rules of engagement.

The Government is consulting on a 48-page document that will eventually become a statutory code setting out in detail the relationship between schools and local authorities. The contents of the document have already been fought over during a long series of meetings between officials from the Department for Education and Employment and representatives of the churches, chief education officers, the headteacher unions and the grant-maintained sector.

According to Mr Byers, a delicate balancing act had to be performed in order that local authorities would have the powers to "confront the complacent and challenge the coasting".

However, early drafts of the code talked in terms of schools "looking for safeguards against heavy-handed use of those powers (local authority powers of intervention) and against interference in matters which are properly the school's own business".

The final version has also revised the suggestion that most schools might not need more than an annual visit from a local authority adviser to say that such schools should expect at least one visit in a year.

The problem for the Government is that in setting tough targets for standards it has to ensure local authorities are able to monitor progress being made by schools. The draft code makes clear schools are to set their own targets and local authorities have no legal power to impose them.

However, Mr Byers announced this week that where local authorities and schools disagree on targets, the final decision will be taken by David Blunkett, the Education and Employment Secretary.

The sharpest disagreement between the parties is over the role of local authorities in dealing with schools that have not been identified as having serious problems.

The grant-maintained sector and the headteacher unions are keen that local authorities are not given general powers of access to schools or are able to insist on particular targets.

The code suggests local authorities should ask themselves a series of questions before deciding to take action against a school that may be under-performing.

Chief officers of local authorities are concerned at the tone of earlier drafts that gave an impression that schools needed to be protected from them.

The document that is being issued for consultation sets out the circumstances in which a local authority can deliver an early warning to a school that action may have to be taken because standards are unacceptably low. It suggests that local authorities should not issue early warning notices for more than 5 per cent of its schools in a year.

Other additional powers to be given to local authorities are the appointment of additional governors at schools where there are problems and the power to take back the school budget.

Mr Byers believes that he has created the conditions for the local authorities to have a role in school improvement, but it is up to them to "write themselves into the script".

Local authorities are waiting to see the minister's plans for distributing budgets between schools and local authorities' central services before they can judge whether they are to be given the resources to allow them to undertake such a task.

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