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Shaky authorities named

Of 41 LEAs recently inspected, nearly a quarter have serious problems, reports Geraldine Hackett THE threat of private sector intervention hangs over a further three local education authorities, after inspections by the Office for Standards in Education.

The latest reports follow criticism of five other urban authorities. They will fuel scepticism at Number Ten over local government's competence to run education services.

Estelle Morris, the standards minister, has ordered the London borough of Southwark to take advice from private consultants on contracting out its education services, and asked for reports on Walsall and Bristol.

According to the chief inspector of schools, Chris Woodhead, around a quarter of the 41 authorities already inspected have serious deficiencies. The report on Southwark, he said, made "dismal" reading.

Inspectors who went back to Southwark 12 months after its inspection found that the services had actually got worse and schools no longer trusted or respected the local authority.

The latest Government intervention follows action in Leicester, Liverpool and the London boroughs of Hackney, Islington, Haringey. The report on Doncaster in south Yorkshire due shortly could bring the total number of authorities where ministers have asked for some private sector involvement to nine.

Others that might also have had to accept intervention if legislation had been in place at the time they were inspected are Manchester and Calderdale in West Yorkshire. Manchester is be re-inspected in the next few months.

Apart from Liverpool, the authorities singled out for treatment are all Labour-controlled.

In Southwark, the director of education, Gordon Mott, is expected to leave his post next month, earlier than the spring date that had been agreed.

According to the report, the council's incompetence in delegating the personnel and payroll services has meant the accurate payment of salaries cannot be guaranteed and pension rights are in jeopardy.

Since the last inspection, a further eight schools have been identified either as failing or as having serious weaknesses. There has been, says the report, a failure to give leadership and there are schools which "can no longer discern any useful purpose that the authority serves".

In Walsall, instability - including a split in the Labour group and constant changes in political control - has hindered the authority's ability to improve schools, say inspectors. At one stage, the strife led to a virtual paralysis of the decision-making process.

The report is critical of Walsall's management structure. The chief education officer, Humphrey Smith, is not on the board of chief officers.

It says: "The two-level leadership of the council is confused and support to schools provided by the plethora of separate units is incoherent."

While the political situation has improved, the report says the local education authority has failed to translate an ambition to work more productively with schools into convincing practice.

The verdict on the Blairite administration in Bristol is less damning. Its inspection report says that it has only been a local education authority since 1996 and had inherited a difficult legacy from Avon.

However, it says parents have lost confidence in the city's secondary schools and there is a gap between projected spending and available resources.

The local authority is praised for for establishing effective management services for schools and for providing a highly professional inspection and advisory service. But the report suggests the authority is paying successful schools too much attention.

Mr Woodhead now views the inspection of local authorities as the most fundamental and important aspect of the work of the Office for Standards in Education. He said inspection had been resisted, but it was vital that authorities got value for money.

He said: "Local authorities typically retain 20 per cent of the money available for education. If that money is not used effectively, it means schools are being denied money that could be useful to them."

He acknowledged that most authorities had provided effective support to primaries to help them raise standards in literacy and numeracy. However around a third are ten points or more adrift from the targets set for next year that have been agreed with the Government.

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