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School entry rules fuel council fears

A draft code to prevent local authorities 'meddling' is raising hackles. Geraldine Hackett reports

The Government may be jeopardising its relations with the officers it relies on to run the education service locally over new rules allowing schools to bar chief education officers.

The terms of engagement between schools and local authorities being drafted by standards minister Stephen Byers are expected to infuriate the senior officers in charge of local education authorities and lead to charges that ministers are caving in under pressure from grant-maintained school heads.

The code of practice currently limits the powers of chief education officers to enter schools or to attend meetings of governing bodies. Within local government there are fears that the regulations could be a major obstacle in the way of encouraging schools to raise standards.

Councils will be required to act where there is evidence of under-performance. The problem with the code, say local officials, is that it removes the existing ambiguity on legal powers and makes clear that schools can refuse them entry.

The minister told MPs this week that he had decided to introduce a statutory code that would set out the duties of the major players in the schools service and presented a briefing note on its contents.

Mr Byers said the code would stop local authorities being "too heavy-handed, meddlesome and prevent them intervening in schools on a day-to-day basis".

He said: "We believe that where an LEA works well it can add value to what a school can do. The downside is where you have an under-performing, failing LEA it becomes part of the problem. Where LEAs are failing the Government may have to intervene."

The most tendentious clauses in the draft say that local education authorities do not have a general legal right of entry, though they retain the power under earlier legislation to inspect a school where they have reason to be concerned.

The other clause suggests that local authority officials only have a right to attend a meeting of school governing body when they are advising on the appointment or dismissal of heads and deputies.

Andrew Collier, general secretary of the Society of Education Officers, said there is growing resentment that ministers appear to believe schools need protecting from local education authorities.

"I have not seen the full document but I am more than a bit concerned that the Department for Education and Employment appears to be concentrating on drawing up battlelines rather than working up constructive partnerships," he said.

He says the fact that the great majority of schools rejected the inducements of the last government to opt out of local authority control shows that good relations exist.

However, the union representing heads, the National Association of Head Teachers, believes ministers are right to reject a statutory right of access. David Hart, its general secretary, said: "There are no schools that I know that are likely to refuse entry. I think local education authorities need to understand that there is healthy scepticism among heads, and not just grant-maintained heads, about the role they are being given in the Bill."

The climate of suspicion at the Government's intentions has been created by statements from ministers in recent months that education action zones are pilots for a new system of education and the remark from Mr Byers that the Government was looking for a new "third" way in the public services.

The views of chief inspector Chris Woodhead that local authorities should be restricted to dealing only with schools that have serious weaknesses have only served to intensify fears.

The draft may not be published until Easter. The fact that it was not produced during the debate on the new clause in the Education Bill that provides for the statutory code may mean that ministers are considering changes.

* Tony Blair said in a speech this week that raising school standards will not be achieved by local authorities taking back the running of schools or intervening where schools are already doing what they should be.

The Prime Minister said local authorities should be setting targets and working with teachers, governors and parents to help improve those schools that are failing or under performing.

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