Local authorities took the brunt of Tony Blair's criticisms this week, but at least one is pressing on with radical proposals that mirror the Government's. Nicolas Barnard reports
An east London authority is to use its education action zone to introduce sweeping reforms to teachers' pay and conditions - effectively trailblazing the Government's plans for the profession.
Newham also plans to become the first authority to create a central pool of superteachers to deploy in failing or struggling schools.
The council is consulting staff at the zone's 19 schools over a "competency model" which headteachers will use to assess their staff and to organise training. Heads would observe teachers' lessons up to six times a term, interview them and examine lesson plans and pupil records.
The scheme will be piloted this term in up to 10 schools and rolled out across the zone from September. Meanwhile the council will draw up a pay model - matching competencies to pay rises - which could be implemented from April 2000.
Accountants Arthur Andersen, partners in the zone, are helping to devise a similar competency model for school managers.
Newham's action zone won praise last week from the Education Secretary, David Blunkett - not least for "piloting" proposals in December's Green Paper on staff assessment and pay rewards for teachers.
Newham first floated the model in its zone bid a year ago and admits it has been "trying to keep in touch with the right people at the Department for Education and Employment".
Ian Harrison, Newham's director of education, said some elements of the teachers' national pay and conditions agreement could be suspended in the zone schools.
"Our main motivation is to retain and recruit the best staff," he said. "We want to reward those demonstrating high levels of competency either by giving them additional pay increments or by becoming automatic candidates for promotion."
The system would help to identify poor teachers and assess the support they need - but it would also provide evidence against those thought to be beyond help.
Newham is advertising for 44 advanced skills teachers, including one for each primary in the zone, four at the secondary school, Eastlea, and 15 for a central pool.
That could provide a headache for the DFEE consultants who have to assess AST candidates through interview and classroom observation. So far schools have put forward internal candidates whom it is easy for the consultants to see in action. Assessing external applicants could prove more problematic.
"There are all sorts of contractual problems. They're not going to leave their school and come here if they haven't been confirmed by the consultants," said Mike Wilshire, acting head of Eastlea which advertised for its ASTs last week.
Teachers in Newham are responding cautiously to both proposals. Peter Smith, the National Union of Teachers' divisional secretary, said members were opposed to both the zone and advanced skills teachers, but had agreed to participate in the EAZ if pay and conditions remain unchanged.
Teachers should be rewarded for improving their skills and knowledge, he said, but there had been no negotiations on linking pay to assessment.