The Government yesterday invited the London Borough of Hackney to submit to an emergency inspection of its education service and announced that new powers to take over failing local authorities would be included in the Education White Paper later this month.
Standards Minister Stephen Byers told a local authorities conference that he wanted a full inspection of Hackney because of his concern that it is "not doing enough to improve standards and tackle failure". He said Education Secretary David Blunkett would be "inviting Hackney to co-operate and agree to an early and rapid inspection by the Office for Standards in Education".
Powers to order inspection of local authorities were conferred by the Education Act passed before the election, but the new Government cannot use these powers until September, when supplementary regulations are finalised. However, Mr Blunkett and Mr Byers want an inspection before schools break up, so that Hackney can prepare an action plan by September.
On May 12, a coalition of Liberal Democrat, Tory and "Hackney New Labour" councillors made a public plea to Mr Blunkett to "intervene".
On Wednesday Hackney councillors from all factions were pre-empting the announcement by indicating that they would welcome the inspection. A spokesman for OFSTED, which plans to start its cycle of local authority inspections in January 1998, appeared surprised that the Government wanted the Hackney inspection done this term.
The Labour Government's "invitation" to Hackney mirrors Gillian Shephard's invitation to Calderdale LEA to undergo an OFSTED inspection after the furore over the Ridings School. For any local education authority to refuse would look as if the authority had something to hide.
The announcement by Mr Byers was presented as part of a call to local authorities to enlist in Labour's standards crusade and reclaim their role - eroded by the Tory government - in improving schools. All LEAs will be expected to "match the work of the best", setting "challenging" targets and producing development plans. Local authorities will be encouraged to set up early warning systems and intervene in troubled schools before OFSTED condemns them.
Mr Byers added that he was drawing up a list of failing LEAs. He said the Government would be talking to them and "if our worries are confirmed, we will ask them to prepare action plans to address the weaknesses". The announcement is the latest in a series of measures intended to signal "zero tolerance" of failure launched since May 1.
Two schools in Hackney - Rams Episcopal and Morningside primaries - were on the list of 18 long-term failing schools, and in 1995 Hackney Downs was the first school in the country to be taken over and closed down by a hit squad. In addition, the council has suffered extraordinary political and administrative convulsions. Its director of education, Gus John, resigned in 1996 and has never been replaced, and 17 councillors were obliged to resign from the Labour party when they formed "Hackney New Labour", a party within a party, and started working with the Opposition parties.