The Government is planning to put the Office for Standards in Education at the heart of its drive to raise standards in schools.
Gillian Shephard, the Education and Employment Secretary, announced this week that next month's White Paper will propose new powers to allow OFSTED to inspect and monitor local education authorities.
Mrs Shephard revealed plans for a higher profile OFSTED at a press conference launching publication of a report on poor literacy in three inner-London boroughs.
It is unclear whether the new role for OFSTED will be created before the election. According to Mrs Shephard, there may have to be legislation and there is unlikely to be parliamentary time in the next session.
The promise of new powers represents a victory for Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector of schools, over the local authorities. The local authorities maintain OFSTED is not competent to judge the range of statutory duties they carry out.
However, at a press conference this week, Mr Woodhead insisted there was no question of inciting confrontation with local authorities. There was a need, he said, for OFSTED to be able to obtain further information about what local authorities are doing about standards in schools.
Andrew Collier, general secretary of the Society of Education Officers, said the Government had spent the past eight years introducing measures that severely restrict the ability of local authorities to deal with standards in schools. "It is a bare-faced cheek to suggest that the local authorities should now be held responsible for standards in schools," he said.
Mrs Shephard also promised legislation to provide OFSTED with new powers to test pupils during inspections. As part of the research for the literacy report, pupils were tested on the Neale Reading Analysis, a standarised reading test. It was unclear whether the new powers will allow school inspectors to test across a range of subjects and pupils of all ages.
According to Mr Woodhead, testing would not become part of the routine inspection of schools, but might be used for surveys and special investigations.
Schools already test reading as part of the national curriculum testing of seven and 11-year-olds. At the moment, inspectors rely on data from national tests and information provided by schools. The outcry from the three London authorities at the presentation of results in the literacy report (see below) could make local authorities reluctant to agree voluntarily in future to independent testing by OFSTED.
* The Government's threat to introduce league tables for the 100 or so teacher-training institutions has surprised even its own educational quangos. In her get-tough response to the news that more than 80 per cent of primary children in three London boroughs are behind in their reading, Mrs Shephard said she would "consider performance tables for teacher-training institutions".
However, no further details of how league tables might be produced were available from the Department for Education and Employment, the Teacher Training Agency or OFSTED this week.
Neither quango gave any indication of having been consulted about the announcement. OFSTED referred enquiries to the Government.
Stephen Hillier, secretary to the TTA, said: "We regard ourselves as being in the vanguard of ensuring that evidence about quality in teacher training is made public. We look forward to ways in which the published information can be brought together."