CONSERVATIVE intentions to slash the power of local education authorities were undermined this week when England's new chief inspector said councils still had a vital role in supporting schools.
In stark contrast to the stance of his predecessor, Chris Woodhead, Mike Tomlinson said that the evidence from inspections of local authoritiesdid not support their abolition.
His views will come as a blow to the Tories and backers of their controversial free schools policy, which is likely to be a key plank in the party's education manifesto. The policy advocates giving schools total control over funding and admissions.
Presenting a report on the inspections of 91 of England's 150 councils, Mr Tomlinson said: "The report provides no comfort to those who believe that the existence of local authorities serves no purpose. It does not support the abolition argument."
Local authorities had played a key part in the success of the literacy and numeracy strategies, he said, and were important to the recovery of many failing schools.
Crucially, they had a co-ordinating role which would be lost if schools were left to manage areas such as admissions by themselves.
Mr Tomlinson added: "Local authorities do have important roles of strategic planning - in relation to school places and admissions, for example - which can never be undertaken by an individual school."
However, Mr Tomlinson emphasised that the report, produced jointly by the Office for Standards in Education and the Audit Commission, did not support the "exaggerated" claims sometimes made on behalf of local authorities. He said that their performance was still far too variable.
The paper's most striking finding was the fact that more than a third of the councils inspected - 32 - had been found to be performing unsatisfactorily.
There were also question about the ability of councils to drive school improvement.
Bu the report was seized upon by the Government, keen to contrast its own approach with that of the Tories. Under Labour local authorities have been retained but more powers and funding has passed to schools.
School standards minister Estelle Morris said: "We wouldn't be celebrating the literacy and numeracy results we have got now had we not had local authorities to support schools in what they are doing."
But shadow education secretary Theresa May argued that the findings of the report supported Conservative moves to hand money directly to schools.
The Tories would not completely abolish LEAs, but would hand more functions, including control of discipline to headteachers.
She said: "The report confirms that the majority of LEAs are not performing satisfactorily and that 'the worst LEAs inhibit school improvement rather than promoting it'."
However, detailed findings provided further bad news for the Conservative policy. In particular it suggested there was little enthusiasm among schools to gain more control over their budgets.
Jane Wreford, director of local-authority inspections for the Audit Commission, said 6,500 schools had been surveyed during the inspections between September 1999 and last summer.
"The vast majority are satisfied with the level of (financial) delegation that their authority already provides," she said.
Writing in The TES this week, Mr Tomlinson pledges to look at ways to make inspections less stressful.
Tomlinson opinion, 15 Copies of the report, price pound;12.95, from The Stationery Office, PO Box 29, Norwich NR3 1GN, or see: www.thestationeryoffice.com
SOMETHING OLD, SOMETHING NEW
"Is the current approach to education management through local councils the right way to go? That ultimately is a political question."
- Chris Woodhead on LEAs, June 2000
"The report provides no comfort to those who believe local authorities serve no purpose. It does not support the abolition argument."
- Mike Tomlinson on LEAs, January 2001