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Minister moves to defend Brighouse

David Blunkett appeared today to side with Tim Brighouse, Birmingham's chief education officer, in his public row with Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector of schools.

The Education and Employment Secretary issued a statement stressing the success of Birmingham in raising standards only days after Mr Woodhead's Office for Standards in Education removed controversial comments from the city's draft inspection report.

The content of the report is sensitive because of Mr Woodhead's view that, on the basis of inspections already carried out, local education authorities may not be up to the task of improving schools.

The battle over the final report has been waged for weeks with the active involvement of the Audit Commission, the Government's financial watchdog. Commission officials are thought to have insisted on changes.

The city's education service was jointly inspected by OFSTED and the commission. Senior officials in Birmingham had complained the report contained doubtful opinions, and that some passages denigrated the authority and Professor Brighouse.

In normal circumstances, the job of responding to the report would have been left to Stephen Byers, the minister who has responsibility for local education authorities. However, Mr Blunkett appears to have wanted to set his seal of approval on Birmingham's conduct.

The statement today will refer to the change in fortunes in Birmingham since 1993, when a commission criticised the education service. (Professor Brighouse became CEO the following year and the inspection report acknowledges his charismatic leadership.) Mr Blunkett will congratulate the authority for having generated a sense of optimism that higher standards can be achieved, even in adverse circumstances.

The final report also gives credit to the commitment of the council and Professor Brighouse and his staff for the efficient organisation of services generally.

However, it is not uncritical. The report says a great deal has been achieved in a relatively short time, but adds: "It remains pertinent to ask why (the authority) has not already achieved more, and what it now needs to do to move further in the direction implied by current Government policy."

The changes from the draft are mainly in tone. The earlier version had suggested the local authority might "valuably ask itself how the use it makes of OFSTED inspection data, important as that use is, can be squared with the CEO's public views about the need to reform OFSTED".

The report now only makes passing references to the fact that Professor Brighouse has criticised the inspection system.

It is critical of the authority for failing to define key concepts of improvement and suggests the celebration of success in schools may turn "all too easily" into a refusal to acknowledge and confront failure.

The Society of Education Officers has asked for a meeting with OFSTED because of its concern at what appears to be the disarray surrounding the inspection of local authorities. Andrew Collier, the society spokesman, said: "We are keen to have a system that produces clear and objective reports. The problem at the moment is that it appears to be provoking rows.

"The legislation on the role of the local authority has yet to go through Parliament, yet the chief inspector is making comments based on the inspection of a handful."

Mr Woodhead is critical of local authorities in his annual report, published this week.

Letters, 25

Ted Wragg, 136

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