Byers puts councils in hot seat

23rd January 1998 at 00:00
The school standards minister told a shocked education officers' conference that local authorities are now to be inspected once every five years. He also said it would not a be a 'joyous experience'. Nicolas Barnard reports

Local education authorities are to be inspected more frequently than schools as the Government puts added pressure on councils to deliver its school improvement agenda.

The Office for Standards in Education and the Audit Commission have been told to move to a five-yearly cycle of local authority inspections.

Inspectors had embarked only this month on a programme of inspecting 12 authorities per year. But that would have meant some authorities avoiding scrutiny until as late as 2012. There will now be 30 inspections a year from 2000.

The announcement was made at the end of the week that inspectors moved into the first authorities in the new cycle of statutory inspections - and comes as OFSTED switches to a six-yearly cycle of school visits.

It also demonstrated Labour's continuing predilection for announcing uncomfortable measures to local authority audiences - Stephen Byers, the school standards minister, broke the news at last weekend's annual conference of the Society of Education Officers in Harrogate.

It provoked an audibly sharp intake of breath among delegates still rattled by the Government's invitation to the private sector to run education action zones, made at the previous week's North of England conference.

Inspectors are to work up to the five-year cycle - 30 authorities a year - by 2000. Mr Byers said up to six local authorities would be added to this year's schedule of 12; inspectors would visit 24 next year and move to 30 the year after.

He admitted it would not be a "joyous experience" for those under the microscope, but said "we will all be judged" - schools, authorities and ministers.

His speech, closing the Harrogate conference, contained much praise for the work of local authorities, and a pledge that the Department for Education and Employment would work more closely with officers.

Crucially, he said he believed authorities "can add value to what schools do" - a view delegates suspect is not held by everyone in the DFEE and its quangos. However, if it was intended to calm nerves, it failed. Indeed, it seemed to leave an unspoken threat hanging.

"I believe the measures in the (Schools Standards and Framework) Bill will allow education authorities to write themselves back into the script as far as education is concerned. But the Government will not do it for you," Mr Byers said. "The means to do it will be in the legislation but you will need to show you can take on the heavy burden of helping your schools to raise standards.

"I'm confident that many authorities will be able to do that," he said - leaving some delegates wondering what would happen to the rest.

It followed an even more salutary warning by the DFEE's permanent secretary Michael Bichard. In an earlier speech he said local authorities must trumpet their success "to the centre of Government" - an implicit reminder that Tony Blair now has his sights set on local government.

Some delegates, too, were uncomfortable or even insulted by Mr Byers' defence of Labour's welfare reforms - in some ways the most passionate part of his speech. Some even viewed it as emotional blackmail as he told them the reforms were vital "to free up money for education and health" and fulfil Labour's pledge of increasing spending in those areas year on year.

He called it a "courageous stand".

One delegate's response was: "Doesn't he realise that poverty is one of the main causes of the problems we face?" Action zones remained one of the major talking points of the conference, reflecting an unease many delegates felt over the part the Government expects them to play in its standards crusade.

Philip Hunter, the incoming president of the society, said many authorities were enthusiastic and willing partners, aware of the need to modernise, eager to get to grips with the problems facing education and relieved to have a Government that saw them as a partner (the money helps too). Or as another senior local authority officer put it after griping about elements of the minister's speech: "But thank God it wasn't Stephen Dorrell."

Local authorities know they are on trial but in Harrogate an uncertainty seemed to remain about exactly what the Government wants them to do. The target is clear enough: 80 per cent of 11-year-olds at level 4 literacy by 2002.

But how they are expected to get there seemed to many ill-defined. And yet, as they prepare education development plans and action zone bids and await inspection, there is a growing suspicion they will be judged not only on results but on process. And that could prove the true test.

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