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Heads voice doubt over LEA powers

The government wants local education authorities to act as improvement monitors and make sure schools play their part in the crusade to raise standards. But head teachers' leaders are not sure LEAs are up to the job. Lucy Ward finds schools rejecting town hall interference.

In its response to the government's Excellence in Schools White paper, the National Association of Head Teachers yesterday said ministers are proposing to hand local authorities excessive powers over schools in the name of driving up standards. The heads expressed strong reservations over the ability of "a significant number" of LEAs to supervise schools' progress.

Under the proposal LEAs will gain a central role, with new duties to approve development plans for schools and new powers to take back some control of those which are failing.

Every school will have to work with its authority to agree improvement targets based on its own and others' performance in tests, exams and inspections, and must submit to monitoring of its progress.

The head teachers' union insists that LEAs must not be given powers to approve schools' annual plans, and questions whether ministers can be truly confident of the local education authorities' ability to "deliver their part of the bargain". It points to the example of the London borough of Hackney, which accepted intervention by a government-appointed "improvement team" after an inquiry uncovered mismanagement and neglect of schools.

While only a tiny minority of authorities are in such crisis, others are also causing concern, according to the union. It warns that small unitary authorities, recently created and new to running education, may face particular problems coping with the challenge of monitoring all schools.

Other LEAs could well act unreasonably in exercising new powers set out in the White Paper, the head teachers' union says. Under the proposals, they will gain the right to intervene where schools are struggling by appointing additional local authority governors or, as a last resort, withdrawing budget delegation.

The union claims many LEAs have run down their inspector and adviser service to virtually nil or have kept staff but sent them to join Ofsted inspections of schools in other authorities in order to raise revenue. "They may not be in a fit state to fulfil the Government's expectations," it says.

Ministers believe they have put adequate safeguards in place to ensure authorities play their part in the standards drive. The White Paper will give the Government new powers to send a "hit squad" into LEAs which fail to live up to their new responsibilities.