Education: Schools hit squad prepares to move on Hackney

An inspectors' report on Hackney local education authority in London to be published tomorrow will be highly critical. Ministers will take powers to take over failing education authorities in this autumn's Education Bill but they do not have them yet. What can they do? Judith Judd and Lucy Ward examine the options.
A team of three or four experts appointed by the Government is expected to be drafted into Hackney to sort out the struggling north-east London authority.

Ministers were last night still wrestling with details of what powers the team, which would include officers from other local authorities, would have. They are hoping a chief education officer, present or retired, might head the group.

The Government wants to portray the team as a hit squad to prove it is showing "zero tolerance" of educational failure. It acknowledges, however, that any intervention would need to be accepted by Hackney.

The main precedent is that of Calderdale, the West Yorkshire authority responsible for the Ridings School, which was criticised in an inspection report last March. The then education minister, Gillian Shephard, announced plans to draft in a team of education experts, but no outside consultants were ever sent in and the Government has just given the authority the all-clear to put its recovery plan into action unaided.

Hackney, however, is in greater difficulties than Calderdale, with a number of senior officer posts unfilled. The authority has no permanent director in charge of schools, but plans to advertise the post later this month and appoint a consultant in the meantime.

Stephen Byers, the school standards minister, sent inspectors from the Office for Standards in Education into Hackney in June. He said that the borough was suffering from "lack of direction and drift". The only statutory powers which would enable the Government to take control of Hackney and remove powers from elected politicians relate to local authorities as a whole. These would enable a board of commissioners to start running the whole council, not just the education service.

Experts doubt whether a report on schools, however damning, would provide sufficient grounds for sending in commissioners. One said yesterday: "It is a procedure which would normally only be used if everyone's hand was found to be in the till."

If Hackney proves resistant to ministers' proposals, David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education, will threaten a legal takeover once the Government has the necessary power, possibly as early as next spring.

Sources at the Department for Education and Employment said no final decision had been taken on a government response to the report but acknowledged: "We are not at this stage looking at taking over the schools."

The authority yesterday insisted it had seen only a draft of the Ofsted report.

The initial inspection phase centred on the authority itself. Inspectors were scheduled to visit schools during a second phase.

Graham Lane, education chair of the Local Government Association which represents councils said: "We can't stand idly by and see an education authority that to all intents and purposes does not exist. You might argue that some authorities are ineffective but this one is not even operating."