Schools left in political limbo

18th June 2004 at 01:00
Councils without a party with overall power insist they can still raise standards. Michael Shaw reports

Dozens of councils were left without a single party in control following last week's local elections, raising questions about their ability to improve schools.

Of the 166 councils where elections were held in England and Wales last week, 58 were left without a party with overall power.

The elections were the first since an Office for Standards in Education report said councils which lacked political consensus could struggle to make the decisions needed to raise school standards.

However, councillors in the nine metropolitan and unitary authorities where parties lost overall control were confident they could continue improving their education services.

Council officials in Leeds said that the authority's decision to hand the management of schools to a private company, Education Leeds, meant that the impact of the political change would be minimal.

Cities with elected mayors, including Doncaster and Hartlepool, claimed the mayoral system would reduce any effect the elections might have on education. Councillors in Doncaster, which switched from Labour to no overall control, and in Hartlepool, where the opposite occurred, said their cities' Labour mayors would provide continuity for public services.

Tony Sockett, Doncaster's acting cabinet member for education, said the change of political balance might reopen the debate over plans to create a second academy backed by the controversial Vardy foundation.

However, the Labour councillor said he remained supportive of the academy and had not heard of opposition from Conservative or Liberal Democrat councillors. "We have had a lot of positive education stories in Doncaster," Mr Sockett said. "From my experience of working with opposition councillors over the past 12 months I am confident that will continue."

In Birmingham, Labour councillors who were voted out included Catharine Grundy, the city's cabinet member for education. The city, which already lacked a party in overall control, now faces the likelihood of a mixed-party cabinet. Conservatives in Birmingham have said they will use the lack of Labour control to block attempts to merge infant and junior schools, but only if the mergers are unpopular with parents and teachers.

One of the biggest upsets of the local elections for the Labour party was the loss of Newcastle-upon-Tyne to the Liberal Democrats.

The Lib Dems now plan to set up an "education attainment commission" to study the reasons behind the city's disappointing exam results. The party plans to spend around pound;160,000 on the commission and hopes it will be chaired by Professor Peter Tymms, director of the curriculum, evaluation and management centre at Durham university.

Pat Richardson, deputy chair of governors at Little Heath school in Redbridge, east London, won a seat for the British National party on Epping Forest District Council in Essex last week.

Teachers at the special school called for the Jewish mother-of-two's removal after it emerged she was standing for the far-right party, but the local authority said there was nothing it could do.

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