Mr Balls doesn't flex his muscles

Ministers who have repeatedly criticised local authorities for failing to take action on low performing schools, have barely used their own powers to intervene, The TES can reveal.

Ed Balls, schools secretary, this month announced plans to strengthen his powers to force local councils to issue formal warning notices - which could eventually lead to closure - where schools have "low standards".

The minister justified this by saying there had only been a "handful" of warning notices issued in the last three years - despite there being a large number of candidate schools.

But Mr Balls already has his own extensive powers of intervention which a TES inquiry has revealed have hardly ever been used.

- He has been able to require Ofsted to inspect schools he thinks are performing poorly since 1992. But the power has only been used once "in recent years," say officials

- Since 1998, the Secretary of State has had powers to close failing schools. They have never been used.

- He and his predecessors have been able to send in 'interim executive boards to replace governing bodies in failing schools since 2002. But that has only happened twice.

Mr Balls' new powers would allow him to force local authorities to bring in "partners" to improve advisory services where they have poorly performing schools.

But Maggie Atkinson, president of the Association of Directors of Children's Services, said the Government had always told local authorities their powers should only be used in "dire circumstances".

"If they are now saying that is not what we meant - fine. But what we went with was what they meant at the time.

"In five years I have issued one formal warning notice. I haven't issued others because I have had conversations with governors and head teachers including, 'Don't you think it's time you went?'"

But a Department for Children, Schools and Families spokesman said: "Local authorities have a responsibility to intervene where a school is causing concern. We trust authorities to carry out this duty."

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