Newham is on message with New Labour ideology - but in an Old Labour kind of way. Nicolas Barnard reports
When Chris Woodhead and his gang roll into Newham, they are unlikely to find officers in the East London authority quaking in their boots. There's little OFSTED can tell them they don't already know.
Local authority inspections are causing anxiety up and down the country, but in Newham they're old hat. Councillors were so concerned about standards in their schools that 10 years ago they commissioned their own inspection by the National Foundation for Educational Research.
The findings were bleak but the council published them anyway and has acted on them since. A follow-up inspection last year demonstrated the sea-change that has taken place.
The Newham of 1988 suffered from chronic unemployment - it is remains one of the most deprived authorities in the country according to Government figures - and its large immigrant and ethnic-minority communites provided a perfect excuse for poor achievement.
In its schools low morale was widespread, and there was little consultation and less co-ordination of the rag-bag of initiatives that did take place, the 1988 report said.
The NFER says that now the authority is better at planning, innovation based on professional evidence, value for money and a clear focus on raising standards.
Results are up - Newham is one of the country's most improved authorities. So is attendance and there is "renewed culture of achievement" from the council chamber to the classroom, the report says.
Director of education Ian Harrison, who has overseen most of that change, is pleased - and discounts sceptics who argue local authorities have no effect. "We think there is very clear evidence that our overall approach, the change in the culture has made an enormous difference to expectations," he says.
It sounds very New Labour, and indeed Newham enjoys a special relationship with the Government- its education chairman, Graham Lane, who as education chair of the Local Government Association is in close contact with ministers.
Newham is at the forefront of New Labour flagship initiatives such as inclusion and education development plans - its main response to the NFER report was strategies and targets, backed by intensive consultation with heads.
Newham is also evangelistic about education action zones - Labour's scheme to target public and private-sector cash on deprived areas. Its plans to bid for help for the bleak Canning Town estates are well-advanced and one head says Newham will have a zone whether it's on the Government list or not.
The authority trumped the Government's budget boost by finding an extra pound;2.3 million of its own. But then it is one of the few authorities spending less than the amount the Government thinks it should be spending on education.
That gap - closing though it is - is one legacy of Old Labour in Newham. Five years ago it was pound;18m, close to 20 per cent. This year it is down to pound;8m and it's partly that increase which has blunted the effect of national cuts.
But that does not mean the money is pouring directly into heads' budgets. Instead it has been targeted on a series of well-planned initiatives (see below). Newham still has one of the lowest levels of delegation in the country - a fact trumpeted by the local National Union of Teachers spokesman, Pete Smith.
Mr Smith says: "We are constantly putting pressure on the local authority not to delegate more than 85 per cent. Our view is that the headteacher's classic role is to manage the school rather than managing budgets."
Newham takes a practical view on delegation, as on most things. Mr Lane's policy is to let heads agree with the authority which services they want delegated, and most heads seem to agree.
Its key approach has been to provide the services schools want. Chief among them has been its quality assurance initiative - the appointment of a link inspector to every primary school to act as a "critical friend" backed by sophisticated comparative data.
The inspector works closely with heads to help them set their own targets and strategies. Together they produce an annual report for governors with, crucially, one section written OFSTED-style entirely by the inspector.
It's a supportive programme, but Newham is not afraid to wade in. Recruitment and retention of staff remains a chronic problem and the high turnover means good schools can decline alarmingly quickly. The council has withdrawn delegation in the past, effectively taking schools over.
Perhaps Newham has found the third way - not between right and left in Tony Blair's phrase but between Old and New Labour. And some old Labour ghosts remain. If Newham needed a reminder, it came last week - a one-day strike in a comprehensive school over class sizes.
FACTS AND FIGURES
Labour-controlled: 60 seats out of 60
Schools: 64 primary, 14 secondary (1 grant-maintained), 3 special
Unemployment: 11.4 per cent
Owner occupiers: 54 per cent
Children from lone parent families: 24 per cent
Free school meals: 43 per cent
Pupils from ethnic minorities: 68 per cent
Primary children needing Language support: 28 per cent
Infant classes over 30: 10 per cent
Education standard spending assessment 199899: pound;143m
Education budget for 199899: pound;135m
Delegation to schools 199798: 86 per cent
Key stage 2 test results 1997: English 48 per cent, maths 47.2 per cent, science 53.3 per cent
English target by 2002: 70 per cent.
GCSE results 1997 (pupils gaining 5+ A*-C passes): 33.1 per cent
Target for 1998 (set by LEA in 1993): 35 per cent