Radicals transform Tower Hamlets

Deprived borough's managers lauded for turning round services in just 20 months. Warwick Mansell reports.

A LOCAL authority in one of England's most deprived areas was this week lauded by Government inspectors for turning round its education service in under two years.

Only 20 months after uncovering serious weaknesses at Tower Hamlets Council, east London, the Office for Standards in Education returned and pronounced itself satisfied with all of its services.

Christine Gilbert, the Labour-controlled council's director of education, claimed the verdict proved that school services could be transformed without private-sector intervention. She said: "This raises questions about the appropriateness of wholesale privatisation as the automatic response to problems in LEAs."

As recently as October 1998, inner-city Tower Hamlets was taken to task by OFSTED for making poor use of the large amounts of public money provided to run its schools, which are the best-funded in the country.

Only 26 per cent of pupils gained five or more higher-grade GCSEs, compared to a national average of 43 per cent, while the council was retaining far too much of its schools bdget for central services.

The 1998 report concluded, however, that there were "reasons for optimism" with the appointment of new education director, Ms Gilbert.

Nearly two years on, that optimism had proved "fully justified".

Exam results in the borough - which has the highest proportion of pupils with English as an additional language in the country - had improved faster than the national average at each key stage in 1998 and 1999.

The council now had good strategic planning, plans to increase budget delegation to schools, effective consultation with heads and high expectations of schools and its own staff.

Inspectors put much of the improvement down to Ms Gilbert and her senior officers, who implemented radical changes including an overhaul of the advisory service and privatisation of education personnel.

They added, however, that Tower Hamlets still had work to do to implement the considerable number of improvement plans.

Chris Woodhead, chief inspector of schools, said: "This report demonstrates that, even in the most disadvantaged circumstances, effective leadership can begin to turn round a local education authority."

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