The Government seized the opportunity this week to castigate Labour local authorities by sending in a prototype hit squad to sort out education in Calderdale Council, which is responsible for the troubled Ridings School in Halifax.
Launching the highly critical report on Calderdale on Monday, the Education and Employment Secretary, Gillian Shephard, announced that she had asked the chief inspector, Chris Woodhead, to appoint "a group of experts in local authority administration and finance to assist him and the LEA in securing urgent improvement". They would have to report back to her on a regular basis, she said.
Coupled with the first primary league tables this week, the Calderdale report provides useful ammunition in the Government's election strategy to establish a link between poor education standards and Labour-run councils.
Mrs Shephard discounted the suggestion that some of Calderdale's problems could be laid at the Conservatives' door (the authority was Tory-controlled until 1995), saying that "the overwhelming political pattern at Calderdale is that it has been in Labour hands".
Calderdale now has until April 18 to produce an action plan. The education committee will meet shortly to consider the implications of the report and decide whether the authority will co-operate with the "team of experts". ( check Wed am.
Ian Jennings, Calderdale's director of education, said he was writing to Mr Woodhead "to find out what he thinks Mrs Shephard means". Mrs Shephard appeared to have taken both her own department and the Office for Standards in Education by surprise on the hit squad issue - officials were unable to clarify exactly who these experts would be, or, more importantly, their status and powers.
Until the Education Bill is passed, Mrs Shephard has no powers to inspect local authorities: Calderdale was "invited" to submit to an inspection after the crisis at The Ridings.
The Bill does not, however, allow for "hit squads" to be sent in when an authority is deemed to be failing - this is a Conservative manifesto proposal.
Mrs Shephard said that in the next Parliament she would seek powers to intervene more directly when councils appeared to be failing, and that the Calderdale report "shows that the new powers in the Education Bill are sorely needed".
The Calderdale inspection found that although the authority is fulfilling its statutory duties, it has "no convincing strategy for school improvement".
Organisation and planning were found to be unwieldy, with a proliferation of education sub-committees and working groups making the council officers' work complicated. Inspectors also commented on the poor relationship between the council and its schools, with some heads and governors expressing "hostility towards, and suspicion of, elected members". The council fails to make the rationale for its decisions clear to the schools, the report says.
"The LEA carries out its statutory functions, but it does little to help its schools, particularly its secondary schools, to improve. It has not succeeded in defining or communicating its priorities with any clarity. Insofar as its aims can be discerned, it is not consistently meeting them."
The relentlessly negative tone of the report and comments made by Mrs Shephard and Mr Woodhead at its launch have provoked a furious row with the Labour authority.
Members accuse Mrs Shephard of politicising the inspection, pointing to her apparent determination to blame the authority for the disturbances at The Ridings right from the start and arguing that the harshness of the criticisms is not substantiated by the evidence.
Ian Jennings, Calderdale's director of education, said he found the accusation of hostility between the council and its schools particularly hard to understand because the council makes a point of inviting headteachers to consultative meetings as a matter of course.
He also pointed out that inspectors had praised standards of behaviour among pupils in Calderdale, contradicting the impression given by the Ridings affair that Halifax was a breeding ground for antisocial children.
A joint statement from all three parties on the council accuses OFSTED of breaching agreed procedures on production of the report. They claim that they were not given copies until the last minute and that copies were taken away by OFSTED immediately after the meeting at the end of last week.
OFSTED strenuously denies this, but James Learmonth, an independent consultant hired by the council, also insists that the procedures laid down by the Government in its draft proposals for the inspection of LEAs were not followed at Calderdale. He told The TES: "Ian Jennings was never allowed to keep a draft of the report, despite explicit commitments made by OFSTED in a meeting which I attended on February 11.
"We spent a fair amount of time discussing arrangements for the director to see the draft and for the draft to be presented to the education committee, neither of which has happened. Huge issues are raised by the way OFSTED has handled this - once doubts are raised about the process, it becomes difficult to maintain credibility about the judgments."
Helen Rivron, deputy chair of education, said: "We did expect them to play by the rules and they clearly have not. The report is inconsistent and contradictory, making statements that are not backed by the evidence."
But Chris Woodhead called on another independent consultant, Sir Peter Newsam (former director of the Institute of Education) to defend OFSTED. Sir Peter said: "I saw no evidence that anybody had done anything in the report other than reflect what the inspectors recommended. I don't see how there could be any objections to the conclusions reached."