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Council clampdown facing delay

Tougher sanctions against failing local education authorities may have Government support but they are unlikely to become law within this Parliament.

A report by the Grant Maintained Schools Foundation called for the power to close down LEAs deemed failures by the Office for Standards in Education. The Education Bill, currently at its committee stage in the House of Commons, will allow OFSTED to inspect councils. But the GMSF believes it does not contain sufficient redress.

Sir Robert Balchin, the foundation's chairman, said OFSTED should be instructed to inspect all local authority schools identified as the worst performers in the performance tables. These schools should be handed over to hit squads if they do not show drastic improvement. This would give them GM status. The Funding Agency for Schools would take over the LEA's planning and funding role.

The LEAs first in the firing line according to the report, Unfit to Govern: No more excuses for LEAs, are: Islington, Hull, Knowsley, Tower Hamlets, Southwark, Lambeth, Hackney, Sandwell, Middlesbrough, Manchester, Newham, Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire. "It is no coincidence that most of the LEAs we have named have been in socialist hands for years," said Sir Robert.

A Government source said while there would be sympathy for such a change it would not be bringing in its own amendment - there is not much time to push through the Bill so further complications would be unwelcome.

The inspection of LEAs by OFSTED is not seen as a controversial part of the Bill and opposition parties are unlikely to attempt to block it. A Labour party spokesman said LEAs would be expected to produce action plans if they received a poor OFSTED report.

Professor Michael Barber, dean of new initiatives at London University's Institute of Education and a Labour party adviser, said if an LEA continued to fall below the expected standard then other alternatives needed to be considered.

* The Department for Education and Employment has said that baseline assesments will not be used to allow primary school selection.

The confusion arose during the committee stage of the Education Bill in an exchange between Eric Forth, education minister, and Estelle Morris, Labour education spokesperson.

Baseline assessment - tests for four or five-year-olds - as proposed in the Bill were thought to be uncontentious. The Labour party supports them and a number of Labour authorities are piloting them. Ms Morris said the Labour party would be opposed to the tests being used diagnostically for selection.

Mr Forth said other techniques could be used, but was unable to say how many primary schools are already selective.

Ms Morris said: "It now emerges that the Government has no idea and isn't interested in the number of primary schools currently exercising the right to select up to 15 per cent of their pupils by ability, or in evaluating the results of current primary selection - yet they are extending primary selection to 20 per cent."

David Jamieson, Labour MP for Plymouth Devonport, established during committee that the part of the Bill which allows school to increase selection without consultation will also allow schools to become less selective.

The Bill makes it necessary for governing bodies to have to discuss whether they want to increase selection. It seems unlikely, however, that the Government would intend a grammar school to be obliged to consider reducing selection.

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