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MPs' part in Leeds' downfall

Who is to blame for the failures in Leeds and Sheffield? Tony Blair can look for answers on his own backbench. Geraldine Hackett reports

THE SHODDY state of the education services in Leeds and Sheffield, that has been revealed by inspectors, reflects poorly on those who dominated the politics of both cities over the past two decades - many of whom are now Labour MPs.

By far the worst criticism of politicians by the Office for Standards in Education is in the Leeds report, published this week. Ministers are now expected to put the city's service out to contract.

According to one insider, the role of George Mudie, now MP for Leeds East, is central to the affair. Mr Mudie, a former trade union official, was briefly an education junior minister in the Blair government. But in Leeds he was not only leader of the council, from 1980, but also oversaw the work of education managers.

On Mr Mudie's departure to Westminster in 1989, his place was taken by John Trickett until 1996, when he in turn joined the government backbenches. Fabian Hamilton chaired the city's education committee until he also became a Leeds MP.

For senior officers in the education service, regular interference from councillors was a fact of life.

The inspectors make no mention of Leeds' ruling political clique, but found evidence that the city was having problems in recent years appointing a chief education officer because rumours of interfering councillors had spread beyond the city's boundaries.

Leeds did not have a permanent director of education for almost four years, from 1995 to 1998. Councillors so mishandled one series of appointments that last October the council had to pay Gus John, a former director of eduation in the London borough of Hackney, pound;60,000 in compensation.

While the inspectors acknow-

ledge that excessive political influence appears to be fading, they say councillors can still allocate sums of money directly to schools in their wards. Last year, about a quarter of schools got sums ranging from pound;100 to several thousand.

A school in one ward got pound;45,000, while the others got nothing. According to the inspectors, there is no means of ensuring the funds are allocated to those in greatest need, and the scheme undermines the principle of formula funding.

Labour has dominated Leeds council since 1979 and still holds 79 of the 99 seats. Rumours that politicians were taking decisions about the education service began after the Jackie Strong was appointed director. Since she left for Leicestershire in 1994, the authority has had problems appointing managers.

Decades of Labour rule in Sheffield ended last year, but the OFSTED report suggests its stewardship of the education service had been less than satisfactory.

The city is still paying off debts generated by the World Student Games of 1991 which ran up losses of pound;10.4 million.

The report says that, as recently as two to three years ago, the authority was in disarray. The legacy of crisis management can be seen, says the report, in the unacceptable state of school buildings.

Problems crowded in on the council with the collapse of the steel industry.

But insiders say it did not help itself by protecting council jobs at the expense of services. The price was paid at the last local elections when the Liberal Democrats took control.

Of course, the former leader of Sheffield council is one David Blunkett.

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