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Council watchdog steps in

Neil Munro reports on how education authorities are being called to account

The Accounts Commission, the independent financial watchdog for local authorities and the health service, could soon become as powerful a player in schools as Her Majesty's Inspectorate. The two are working together on a major initiative to streamline approaches to the growing scrutiny of the work of education authorities.

So significant is the involvement of the Accounts Commission that Bob Black, the controller of audit, revealed in an interview with the TES Scotland that it is considering an investigation into "the capacity of schools to deliver an effective curriculum". Anticipating nervous reactions, Mr Black adds quickly that the commission's interest is in the robustness of the organisational structures surrounding the curriculum, such as the amount of administrative support available to free teaching time.

Mr Black gave an assurance that there would be consultation before an inquiry was launched. But the commission has already agreed to conduct a "value-for-money" study of school administration processes, and will publish an initial bulletin in the autumn.

Graham Donaldson, depute senior chief inspector of schools, is adamant that the roles of the HMI and the Accounts Commission will remain distinct but that they must dovetail their approaches to avoid overloading authorities with "multiple audit".

Mr Black adds: "What we bring to the party is expertise on organisational structures and processes without second-guessing the professional activity of what goes on in the classroom."

The Accounts Commission is no stranger to educational activity. Earlier value-for-money studies have included one on surplus school accommodation that suggested 300,000 unnecessary places could be removed.

Another on property risks in schools pointed to the potential for significant savings on security and vandalism. It also publishes annual performance data on all council services, including schools.

The commission, a statutory body, is likely to become much more powerful as it steps up a gear from producing value-for-money studies to a "best value" regime in line with the Government's policy. This is designed to lead to a "continuous improvement in the management arrangement of councils", Mr Black says.

The best value approach has replaced compulsory competitive tendering (CCT) under which the previous government insisted that a small number of council services, such as school catering and cleaning, should be put out to private tender. In future, all services will be exposed to audit controls.

"It is likely auditors will increasingly be reporting on councils' performance and not just on whether they have balanced their books," Mr Black said. "We take it from ministers' comments that there will be no dark corners which are not to be subject to best value."

He added: "The underlying principle of best value is a commitment to continuous improvement instead of the administrative routines of CCT. It involves a commitment to performance and quality in the mainstream services which were missed by CCT."

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