Woodhead accuses ministers of failing Hackney

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The Independent Online

Ministers should have intervened earlier to save schools from "endemic turmoil" in the worst local education authority in England, Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector of schools, said yesterday.

Ministers should have intervened earlier to save schools from "endemic turmoil" in the worst local education authority in England, Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector of schools, said yesterday.

The Government retorted angrily that it had acted vigorously and swiftly but had to wait until new legislation was in place before ordering a shake-up in Hackney and other failing local authorities. The east London borough was the first authority to have some of its services privatised.

The dispute broke out as Ofsted, the standards watchdog headed by Mr Woodhead, published its third damning report in three years on Hackney. Inspectors conclude that the council is incapable of improving school standards.

Mr Woodhead said at a press conference in London that he viewed the report with "a melancholy sense of déjà vu". He feared the "history of endemic turmoil that weighs heavily on Hackney" would mean further efforts at improvement would end in the "same sickening bathos".

Despite the authority's ineptitude, he argued, school standards were rising. He urged the 58 primary and nine secondary schools to break free of the authority and govern themselves. "The time has come to give them more control over their own destiny," he said.

Mr Woodhead said the Government should have taken radical action when his inspectors' evidence was first reported to David Blunkett, Secretary of State for Education, in 1997. Asked If Hackney was the worst council in England, he replied: "I think it must be."

Mr Blunkett suggested that schools could band together to buy services from private companies or other local education authorities. Or the authority might decide to privatise more of its services.

Government sources said privatisation had to be carried out according to legal procedures. Ministers had no legal power to intervene in Hackney until the summer of 1998. It then called in consultants who recommended that some, but not all, of the education authority's services should be privatised. Their advice had been followed.

Mr Woodhead said things were improving slowly until the resignation of Liz Reid, the director of education, who left yesterday. The report says: "The resignation of the director of education and her senior colleagues is the last in a series of crises resulting from the continuing ineptitude of the corporate management of the council." It warns: "What should be a period of stability and consolidation of improvements has become a time of further turmoil."

The report also criticises Nord Anglia, the private contractor that runs some services for local schools. It says the company has been "too slow" in establishing its school improvement service although its support for literacy and numeracy lessons has been effective.

The Audit Commission has just published a highly critical report on Hackney council, which it says is "not well run".

Estelle Morris, the Schools minister, said the Government was considering stripping the council of responsibility for education. She told BBC Radio 4's World at One: "The education service cannot improve by itself. It is part of a corporate structure that is letting down the whole of the council."

* New powers to allow the Secretary of State for Education to remove an entire governing body of failing schools will be proposed by the Government today. Governors of failing or near-failing schools which have failed to improve could be sacked under legislation being considered. At present, ministers can appoint extra governors but cannot sack them. More powers for heads, rather than governors, to hire and fire teachers are also proposed.