As the chief inspector criticises councillors, consultants seek a future model for the education service. Clare Dean reports.
A CONSULTANCY group whose members include a minister's partner as well as top ranking civil servants is looking at the future of local education authorities.
Set up by the New Local Government Network, it is examining future models of local education with an early remit that the status quo is not an option.
Chris Woodhead in his annual report said councillors were to blame for the state of education services in councils with the worst inspection reports - Liverpool, Hackney and Islington .
The network, which is part-funded by the private sector, is widely known as "friends of Hilary Armstrong", the local government minister.
Its 18-strong consultancy group includes her partner, Paul Corrigan, from the Office for Public Management. Sheila Scales, the Department for Education and Employment's LEA effectiveness division manager, and David Singleton, head of LEA inspections for the Office for Standards in Education are also represented.
There are just three councillors and one former chief education officer on the group compared with nine representing businesses - four of which are on the Government-approved list of contractors for failing councils.
Concerns are now being voiced that it has a pre-determined outcome. But, John Merry, deputy leader of Salford and a member of the group, said: "I am not in the business of pushing for the abolition of LEAs."
He is seeking clarification about the status of the group.
Martin Rogers, from the Education Network, said: "It's high time to bury for good the destructive suggestion that LEAs should, or will, be replaced."
The New Local Government Network, said the inquiry was open-minded. "Nothing has yet been finalised or ageed. The project does not make a commitment to the abolition of LEAs, but simply looks at their future."
News of the project comes as ministers this week sent private consultants into Walsall.
PricewaterhouseCoopers is looking at problems and possible solutions in the authority where political instability has, according to inspectors, hindered the council's ability to improve schools.
It carried out a similar exercise in the London borough of Islington, where all services where eventually handed over to Cambridge Education Associates.
Consultants KPMG, sent into Southwark following its inspection late last year, this week recommended outsourcing parts of its failing education service.
"In our view, the LEA is suffering a serious crisis of confidence among its schools," the company said in a report to councillors, citing major deficiencies in overall co-ordination and leadership.
KPMG recommends three interim managers are appointed - one for the school improvement service, two others (from the public or private sector) whose work would include creating a more corporate culture.
It also proposes adverts be placed to find a private-sector partner to work with senior managers in the London authority.
Decisions on the report are expected in the next two weeks.
Officials at the Department for Education and Employment said the first job for PricewaterhouseCoopers in Walsall was not to draw up specifications for contracting out services. But with adverts appearing in national newspapers last week appealing for more private and public sector companies to take over failing councils, it is clear ministers are keen to go down that route.
As the TES went to press, civil servants met OFSTED to discuss yet-to-be published inspection reports on Waltham Forest, in London, Luton and Plymouth.
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