In a letter to Tory MPs last week, Gillian Shephard suggested they ask their LEA some questions that might be "helpful in establishing their credibility in the battle to get better value for money in public services". They included the extent to which the authority was expanding non-statutory services, such as under-fives, at the expense of statutory education services.
But other questions were more barbed. One suggested finding out from the authority its response to the recent Audit Commission report, which claimed councils were making generous pay awards to senior management, thus inflating the total pay bill.
The Audit Commission report, Paying the Piper, said the number of senior posts in local government had risen by 60 per cent between 1987 and 1993. But, as the Local Government Management Board responded, the commission's definition of "senior post" as anyone paid more than Pounds 18,000 a year is pitched very low; much less than the average private-sector pay for white-collar workers of Pounds 21,900, and compares with a salary maximum for classroom teachers without additional responsibilities of Pounds 19,062. White-collar staff employed by all councils did rise over the period by 90,000, or 15 per cent, at a time when teachers fell by 50,000, or 10 per cent. Teacher numbers dropped in response to falling rolls and because the staff of grant-maintained schools moved off the local government payroll.
But half the increase in non-manual staff is a direct result of central government initiatives. Numbers of school-based non-teaching staff, for instance, have risen because of local management of schools and the integration of children with special needs into mainstream schools.
What about chief education officers, who undoubtedly hold senior posts? About one-third are now paid more than the sums recommended in national agreements, which ranged from Pounds 33,000 to Pounds 70,000 in 1993 (the 1994 increases are subject to arbitration).
This suggests that they have done as well as finance directors and better than other chief officers in local government. But this is probably a localised advantage, based on high rates in the new London authorities, which needed to attract good staff, and in the South-east generally, where salaries are higher. Kent, Buckinghamshire and Surrey, for instance, are outside national agreements.
Chris Tipple, director of education for Northumberland and past president of the Society of Education Officers, said it was certainly not his impression that there had been a tremendous escalation in salary settlements, although it was quite hard to know what salaries were as most CEO posts were now filled internally.
While there had been a general reduction in the education budget of 3 per cent a year for the past four years, Northumberland's central administration had taken a cut of 15 per cent in the current year to protect school budgets.
Only one in four of the lost administrative posts could be attributed to local management, Mr Tipple said. Such jobs as servicing the new-style governing bodies and providing information for parents were "a huge task" for schools.
Counties singled out by the Government for increasing staff numbers tell a similar tale. Devon, criticised by ministers and Conservative MPs for a rise of 700 staff in the past year, says 400 of these were front-line staff in schools appointed by governors directly out of school budgets and the remaining 300 were involved in the care in the community initiative.
"Devon has one of the lowest administrative costs of any shire county, " a spokesman said.
Kent County Council has been attacked by local MP Jacques Arnold for its "bloated bureaucracy". He told the Commons recently that the central educational administration had risen from 965 to 1,162 full-time equivalent staff although many schools had opted out of council control.
But a spokeswoman pointed out that much of the apparent increase was due to a shift of staff like educational psychologists from the school account to the central account. Senior staff in the county's education department had fallen by 33 per cent over the period 1989-95, to 66 full-time equivalent posts, and a further 50 management and administrative posts were budgeted to go in the next financial year.
Down in Somerset, the Liberal Democrat-controlled county has been bewailing a Pounds 20m shortfall in funds for next year, only to be met by complaints from John Gummer, the Environment Secretary, that its staff numbers have risen by 3.4 per cent. A county spokesman pointed out that the rise of 181 staff (full-time equivalents) was concentrated on the delivery of services, not central bureaucracy.
And now Conservative MPs and the county's Lib-Dem leaders have agreed that - while they differed on the size of the shortfall - the Environment Secretary should lift the cap on their spending.