Local authorities felt the smack of firm central control yesterday when the Government lost patience with the London borough of Hackney and sent in a team to take charge of its schools.
The move followed a damning report from the Office for Standards in Education which painted a picture of a council in a state of political and administrative meltdown.
The Government will have to go through the motions of "inviting" Hackney to accept the help of the team, because it does not yet have the power to take over failing authorities, but it is nevertheless the first time any government has taken control of a public service away from local politicians.
The team, which will start work on Monday morning, will be led by Richard Painter, who was also in charge of the "hit squad" that closed Hackney Downs school in 1995. The other members are Anne Sofer, former director of education at Tower Hamlets, Pat Collarbone, former head and now director of the London Leadership Centre, and James Aston, an education partner with Kitson Impey, a firm of receivers. They will produce a report in January.
While the Department for Education and Employment emphasised that the team will have an advisory rather than punitive role, the move will be humiliating for the authority and will be interpreted as evidence of the Government's determination to stamp on councils that show signs of fulfilling Tory stereotypes of Labour-controlled local government.
Standards minister Stephen Byers said: "This is a damning report on a leaderless local authority that is clearly in crisis. We cannot stand idly by and allow the education of 10,000 children to be damaged by the chaos which reigns at the centre of Hackney's education service. It has let down the borough's schools, parents and children."
He was echoed by Graham Lane, education chair of the Local Government Association, who said: "Hackney isn't just a failing authority, it has ceased to exist." It was examples like Hackney, he said, that gave local government a bad public image.
Mr Byers ordered an emergency inspection of the council in June, after learning that the borough had nine failing schools, two of which are now on the government's list of 18 that have been failing for two years. The report contains the inspectors' conclusions about the management of Hackney's education service. OFSTED confirmed on Wednesday that the second phase - school visits - would still go ahead, though intention would be to help them improve rather than seek further evidence that they are failing.
Inspectors will be following up weaknesses identified in the first report, in particular special needs, behaviour, attendance, literacy and management.
The reaction of Hackney politicians to the Government's intervention shows just how disunited the council is. Pat Corrigan, education spokesman for Hackney's Labour group, said on Tuesday that he welcomed the Government's action as it offered the "promise of a return to sanity".
But Gerry Ross, leader of the "Hackney New Labour" group (which has been expelled from the Labour party) warned the Government on Monday to keep its "hands off Hackney schools", and accused it of conducting a "political vendetta". He called on the Local Government Association to "take a principled stand against such abuse".
However, back in May, Hackney New Labour, together with Tory and Lib-Dem politicians, sent a letter to David Blunkett, the Education and Employment Secretary, pleading with him to "intervene" and blaming the "malignant" old Labour group for the state of the council's schools.