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Friday, March 19, 1999 Published at 13:20 GMT


Council to lose school powers

Inspectors say Hackney's education services are not up to standard

Hackney is to become the first local education authority to have some of its powers taken away by central government.

The BBC's Andrew Bomford: "A warning to other education authorities"
The Education Secretary, David Blunkett, has told the London borough he is preparing to invite contractors to take over a number of its school support services.

Bidders could include private and not-for-profit firms, as well as other local education authorities.

The move has been prompted by a second critical report on Hackney by the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted).

The report concludes that insufficient improvement in key services has been made since an earlier inspection found serious weaknesses.

Those described as inadequate are the school improvement service, the language and learning service, and financial, personnel and information technology support for schools.

In a letter to Hackney's education department, Mr Blunkett said he would be sending in consultants with a view to putting these and other services out to tender to firms which could start work by the end of May.

[ image: David Blunkett:
David Blunkett: "Hackney schools and the children they serve deserve better"
Under legislation passed last year, Mr Blunkett has the right to send in an outside team to a "failing" local authority to take over the management of education services.

"Ministers now have new powers to act and will use them to ensure schools and the children of Hackney get the support they deserve," he said.

"We do not intend to use these tough new powers lightly, but we will not sit by and watch public funds being wasted on ineffective services which detract from the work of schools faced with some of the biggest challenges."

In September 1997, inspectors sent into Hackney by Mr Blunkett concluded that the education authority was failing to meet its responsibilities.

In response, the education secretary appointed an improvement team for Hackney - a so-called "hit squad" - which was charged with ensuring that standards were raised.

But criticisms of the education services in Hackney have continued, including this month's report into local education authorities by the Audit Commission.

This found that Hackney had recorded the largest single fall in GCSE results, a decline in achievement that went against the national trend.

'Children come first'

Hackney education authority has accepted the latest Ofsted report as fair and balanced, and recognises that it has a number of "failing" services.

In a joint statement, leaders of the three political groups on the authority committed themselves to working in partnership with the government to improve matters.

"We are willing to explore any avenue which will raise educational achievement in the borough, including a partnership with central government, the Local Government Association, local businesses and the community," said the statement. "For all of us, the children come first."

But local Labour MP Diane Abbott said: "There has been absolutely no local consultation about this step.

"It won't do for ministers to say they are doing this on behalf of Hackney parents and children when they have not come to Hackney, not consulted local people and certainly not consulted local MPs."

'Sacrificial lamb'

And the National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers said Hackney had received a poor reward for its attempts to improve education services.

The union's Deputy General Secretary, Eamonn O'Kane, said: "Hackney has had to struggle with problems which would daunt any local education authority.

"It is hard to escape the conclusion that Hackney is being made a sacrificial lamb to demonstrate to all local education authorities that their future could be in jeopardy."

The Shadow Education Secretary, David Willetts, accused the government of failing to deal with the real problems in Hackney.

"It's no good the government stomping around making these gestures," he said. "The problems in Hackney are in the schools.

"We have been here before. We've had a hit squad sent in, and that didn't do much good. I'm not clear what this latest intervention is intended to achieve."

  • The Economic Secretary to the Treasury, Patricia Hewitt, denied that the government was proposing to privatise education in Hackney during an emergency debate on the issue in the House of Commons.

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