Fifty civil servants to police councils
Ministers are to exercise even greater control over local authorities through a new intelligence-gathering division of civil servants based in the North-east.
Plans to establish this special unit in Darlington are revealed in confidential papers issued from the office of Stephen Byers, the school standards minister.
The new division will be the eyes and ears of the Department for Education and Employment, monitoring the local education authorities' work of managing schools and raising standards.
The most likely recruits to the division are civil servants working for the doomed Funding Agency for Schools, the quango that managed grant-maintained schools. According to the briefing papers, the division's purpose will be "to support and, where appropriate, challenge local education authorities on their discharge of structure functions".
Its creation means authorities will come under the scrutiny of three bodies: the new division, the standards and effectiveness unit that already exists in the DFEE and the Office for Standards in Education.
The documents make clear ministers will require information that will allow them to judge whether they need to take action against particular authorities. New powers in the School Standards and Framework Bill mean that ministers can intervene in local authorities that fail to deliver an adequate service.
The intention is to recruit 50 civil servants to work in the Darlington office. They will be expected to form views on the effectiveness of school management; the operation of the code of practice that will govern relations between schools and councils; and the efficiency of funding arrangements.
The division, says the briefing, should know its local education authorities. "It (the division) will have the capacity, through reviewing performance and effectiveness of planning, to form well-founded view (sic) on the strengths and weaknesses of each LEA on structure matters and how these relate to delivery of educational outcomes."
The policy areas listed in which the division will be expected to play a part include education action zones; arrangements for reducing the size of infant classes; and the closure of failing schools.
The briefing suggests that FAS staff, because of their skills and experience, will be in a very strong position in applying for jobs. However, the posts will be advertised and filled by open competition.
As well as assessing the work of local authorities, the division will be expected to brief ministers on local issues.
* This week Education and Employment Secretary David Blunkett set a new two-year deadline for failing schools to turn themselves around. Beyond that point, he said this week, they would be closed and reopened with a "fresh start".
Blunkett gets tough, page 4
Councils run short of staff, page 13