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Labour clears fog over councils' role

Campaigners say the Government has given local authorities the part they wanted in the drive to raise standards, reports Nicolas Barnard. Below, ahead of the game in London

Local authorities have been given the role they demanded in raising standards, campaigners are claiming as ministers issue new guidance to councils.

Guidelines for the education development plans which every local authority must put in place by April 1999 are being hailed as giving councils their clearest role yet in improving schools, at a time when some were predicting the death of the LEA.

Under the guidance, authorities must negotiate key stage 2 and GCSE targets for every maintained school, and explain how they have agreed the targets and how they will meet them.

The Government's standards and effectiveness unit, which will oversee the plans, says they should create no extra work for schools - and The TES understands the more detailed sections have also been scaled back to allay local authorities' fear of a bureaucratic burden.

The guidance says "primary responsibility for raising standards rests with schools" but describes a role for councils in setting challenges, identifying and tackling problems, co-ordinating initiatives and disseminating good practice.

Martin Rogers, of The Education Network (formerly Local Schools Information), the body which supports the role of local authorities in education, said it was "an extremely clear role" - more strategic than in the past, more about education and less about building maintenance and payrolls.

"It gives councils the role they've been asking for," he said. "It's more narrow than in the past but more clearly defined."

The guidance says the plans, covering three years and updated annually, should support the targets with a "manageable" set of priorities - say, between five and eight - and a list of activities which will be carried out to achieve them.

They must address three areas and include "significant action" in seven "aspects". The areas are: pupils' standards of achievement; the quality of teaching, and the quality of school leadership and management.

The aspects cover support for: literacy and numeracy; underachieving groups of pupils (particularly boys); children with special needs and gifted pupils; schools causing concern; school self-review; disseminating good practice; and using IT to support teaching and learning.

Each plan will be in two parts: The first lists the targets and programme and must be approved by the Education and Employment Secretary. The second part - mandatory but not requiring approval - will list background information.

That will include targets for each school, the characteristics of the council, specific actions and their costs, plans for monitoring the programme and details of the extensive consultations which must be carried out to draw up the plan.

Those consultations could be as important as the contents - because the aim is to create a partnership between authority, schools and community.

Each plan must explain how it arrives at its targets, which must be negotiated with schools. If schools and authority cannot agree, the standards and effectiveness unit can step in to offer support. Mr Rogers said that with 24,000 schools in 170 authorities, officials at the unit could find their hands full.

In talks with the National Union of Teachers, DFEE officials said they were aware that some LEAs were attempting to impose targets on schools. They said that in cases of disagreement, the school would still be eligible for standards funds.

Doug McAvoy, NUT general secretary, said: "The Government must make it clear that the final decision must be the school's and that standards money will not be affected."

The Local Government Association gave broad support. David Whitbread, its head of education, said the amount of detail had been scaled down to meet concerns over the bureaucratic burden.

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