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Government grip tightens on councils

Local education authorities have been put at the heart of the Government's plans to raise standards in schools, but the Secretary of State has given himself a set of draconian powers to keep them in check.

The School Standards and Framework Bill is an attempt to re-define the relationship between schools, LEAs and central government. It reins back the previous government's strategy of devolving more powers to schools, using the market to lever up standards.

In its place is a highly structured, more bureaucratic system, with each process and layer bound by codes of practice, development plans, targets, new committees and adjudicators. Ultimately, the Secretary of State will be able to take over an education authority and close a failing school.

Local authority officials are largely in favour of the Bill, welcoming the duty it has given them to promote high standards, although at its launch it was presented as a means to get tough with both LEAs and teachers. A code of practice will define the councils' role "to ensure intervention is in inverse proportion to success".

Councils will devise education action plans which will be approved by the Secretary of State. They will have to set up a school organisation committee, including representatives from the LEA, the churches and the Further Education Funding Council, to plan local demand for school places.

Councils will be the admissions authority for community schools and will agree admissions in local forums with foundation schools and churches. An independent adjudicator will intervene in disputes with the Secretary of State ruling on disputes about religious criteria.

The Government also intends to cap the amount of money councils retain from schools' budgets for administration.

Stephen Dorrell, Conservative education spokesman, told a conference organised by the Association of London Authorities that he agreed with much of the Bill, but his main concern was the high level of centralisation. "The key question, " he said, "is the desire of Government to shift authority out of the schools and to locate it elsewhere, either in the LEA or Government. If you are a Conservative LEA, do you want a Labour Secretary of State to have such powers over your education policies? Should Britain run its schools as a national service or a local one?" Estelle Morris, education junior minister, said local authorities will be expected to challenge their schools to raise standards and the Department for Education and Employment will monitor the progress of there education development plans. She said councils will be scrutinised by OFSTED and the Audit Commission. While the Secretary of State did have far-reaching powers to take over LEAs, she said, he hoped he would never have to use them.

At the conference local authority leaders and officials voiced concern that the extra duties, including taking back former grant-maintained schools, will cost more than the Government admits.

But Martin Rogers, spokesman for the Education Network, said: "The Bill has a lot to offer LEAs. It is largely based on existing good practice . . . and the substance is far more positive than initial press reaction suggests. The Government depends on LEAs to implement its programme and is legislating to that effect."

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