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Watchdog fails to link spending to results;Local authorities

Sarah Cassidy and Nicolas Barnard report on the latest assessment of England's education authorities

THE GAP between the best and worst performing councils is widening, the Audit Commission warned this week.

Spending on schools fell again as councils implemented the final funding round of the last Conservative government. But the commission drew no clear link between spending and standards as it published its annual performance indicators for local education authorities in England.

GCSE results rose in some authorities which cut budgets but fell in others which spent more.

The data, covering the financial year 199798 and published yesterday, strip out the results for grant-maintained and independent schools. They reveal wide gaps in standards between similarly deprived authorities.

In the 15 least affluent councils, GCSE results varied by 100 per cent. For example, in Camden, north London, nearly 40 per cent of pupils got five good-grade GCSEs. In Southwark, across the Thames, the comparable figure was just over 20 per cent.

Improved GCSE results in two-thirds of authorities were hailed by the Local Government Association as proof of councils' "valuable and vital role" in raising standards at a time when many were knocking them as an easy target.

"There is variation in attainment but this should be expected," a spokesperson said. "There are many differing factors involved including the competence of teachers, heads and governors, funding and deprivation."

The report comes as Labour prepares to use new powers to intervene in councils which fail to support their schools properly.

Councils are fighting a rearguard action to retain control of their services. Hackney in east London could be the first council to have some or all of its education powers taken over.

Conventional wisdom suggests councils with poor raw GCSE results should find it easier to improve than those where results are already high. But the Audit Commission indicates the reverse happened in 199798.

Results in five of the 15 authorities with the lowest GCSE pass rates fell further, by between 1 and 4 percentage points. Only Buckinghamshire among the best performers saw results fall significantly, and then by only 1 percentage point.

Seven high-scoring authorities saw a rise of more than 2 percentage points, matched only by Manchester at the bottom end.

However, deprived Camden's GCSE results even outstripped Poole, the poorest performing of the 15 most affluent authorities. Again, results among the affluent ranged from Poole's 34 per cent to 60 per cent in Kingston upon Thames. In both LEAs less than half of pupils remain in local authority secondary schools.

Key stage 2 results reflected a similar pattern but without such wide variations.

Average funding per pupil fell in real terms nationally by 3 per cent in primary and 3.7 per cent in secondary schools from 199495 to 199798. Local authority budgets in 199798 were the last to be set under the Tories.

Warwickshire cut secondary spending by more than pound;250 per pupil, but saw a small improvement in results. Cumbria increased spending by the same; its results stayed static.

Andrew Collier, general secretary of the Society of Education Officers, said councils were being judged on results over which they had little control. He predicted results would level up as new powers to intervene came into effect.

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