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Minister names star councils;News

FOUR local education authorities have been chosen by the Government to spearhead efforts to tackle school failure.

Blackburn with Darwen, North Tyneside, the London borough of Camden and Suffolk were this week named centres of excellence in education by local government minister Hilary Armstrong.

Part of a larger group of 42 councils picked out for high standards of services, the education "beacons" are charged with setting up open days, web pages and mentoring schemes to spread good practice.

In the short term, the authorities will receive relatively small grants - roughly half the pound;30,000 handed out to most beacon schools annually.

But radical government proposals to allow "beacon councils" to levy special local business rates raises the prospect of them forming the basis of a privileged class of super-councils.

Blackburn with Darwen has only been in existence since April last year and Mark Pattison, education director, said: "We are particularly proud that we have been recognised in such a short time."

The authority will be passing on information about its team of dedicated school improvement officers.

Unlike traditional advisers, they are not subject specialists and do not offer in-service training to teachers. Instead, they help school managements to identify and solve their own problems.

Schools with similar social profiles share experiences via benchmark learning groups and cross-departmental teams are assigned to struggling schools to ensure nothing gets in the way of their progress.

Four headteachers have been dismissed and the authority is now seeing results. Four schools in or just out of special measures now have key stage 2 results well above national averages.

North Tyneside is the top council in the North-east at key stage 2 and it is better than any councils with similar social profiles at GCSE. The council, the old stomping ground of Trade Secretary and former education minister Stephen Byers, has no failing schools.

Camden boasts a similar record. It achieved the best GCSE results of the 15 most deprived councils in the Audit Commission's performance indicators for 199697 and 199798.

It has no failing schools and Robert Litchfield, director of education, said:

"I hope we will be able to offer some of the fruits of what we have learned to other councils.

"But we will also be learning from the process. We are not claiming that we have got it sorted."

David Peachey, Suffolk's director of education, said the county's success was due to clear policies supporting schools and an early focus on the problem of learning loss when children transfer to secondary school.

Ministers this week insisted that private consultants should help schools in Doncaster.

The South Yorkshire authority becomes the ninth in which ministers have acted in response to critical inspection reports from the Office for Standards in Education.

According to the report, the Labour-controlled council faces a major task to raise standards.

Inspectors single out secondary schools for their poor results, high exclusion rates and low attendance. For some years, says the report, too many pupils have left school with no qualifications.

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