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Hackney's show of nerves;Briefing;Document of the week

It is not just Hackney which has been anxiously awaiting the latest inspection report on the east London borough's education authority. It is seen as the acid test of the Government's willingness to use its new powers to intervene where LEAs are "failing" schools.

Other authorities will keep a close watch on the success or otherwise, of the private contractors who will be asked to improve Hackney's services. There is a feeling in some quarters of "There but for the grace of God go I."

Unfortunately for Hackney, its problems hit the headlines just as Labour came to power, determined to show it would not tolerate failure. But there can be little doubt that the borough's schools have been deprived of proper support for years.

The Office for Standards in Education's first report, in September 1997, was scathing about the council's management structures and "a failure of political will". It accused councillors of letting their own disagreements get in the way of pupils' interests.

Since then some progress has been made. Special educational needs policy, criticised in 1997, is now judged to be broadly satisfactory, as is early-years education. But despite the efforts of Liz Reid, the new director of education, and the hit squad - sent in with the agreement of Hackney after the inspectors' first report - many of the weaknesses remain. Politicians may now be pulling in the same direction but according to inspectors: "Schools are still not receiving the support they require to enable them to concentrate on the key task of raising standards."

The report does not pull its punches. Transforming Hackney, the council's plan to improve services, introduced in 1997, is singled out for criticism. Trading units were set up to sell services such as information and communications technology across the full range of council activities - including to schools. However, this introduction of market forces has been a failure. The report says that "With regard to education, the process . . . has brought few if any benefits to schools."

School improvement services are described as "particularly inadequate", the education development plan is "poorly designed", while language and learning services "continue to need a complete overhaul".

Improving these services in one of Britain's poorest boroughs will be daunting: other authorities will be watching nervously.

"Inspection of Hackney local education authority", February 1999, is available from Hackney Education Directorate, Edith Cavell Building, Enfield Road, London N1 5BA.


OFSTED'S verdict

Broadly satisfactory

* Performance data

* National Literacy Strategy

* Early years * Admissions

* Exclusion policy * Special needs

* Liaison with health service and police


* Planning for school improvement

* Advice on curriculum - including literacy in secondary schools

* Professional development

* Intervention in schools

* Advice on finance

* Specialist help for bilingual learners

* Liaison with social services

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