Ofsted hails `born-again' authority

AN EDUCATION authority, targeted just four years ago because it had so many failing schools, has changed beyond recognition, inspectors say.

The education department of Lambeth in south London "is unrecognisable from those days of despair", according to inspectors from the Office for Standards in Education. Recently, two other London education authorities, Hackney and Islington, have had to contract out some services to private companies after highly critical inspection reports.

More than half of Lambeth'ssecondary pupils are educated outside the borough, compared with 43 per cent in Islington. Around 52 per cent of Lambeth secondary pupils take free school meals, an indicator of poverty, compared to 59 per cent in Islington and a national average of 18 per cent. The proportion of pupils getting five or more good GCSEs is 25 per cent in Islington and 28.8 per cent in Lambeth.

Four years ago, the chief inspector of schools announced an emergency inspection programme of all schools in Lambeth, because so many of them were failing.

In 1996, the new director of education inherited "a culture of failure and inefficiency evident in a pervasive lack of belief that things could ever improve". She then appointed an almost entirely new team of senior and middle managers from outside the authority.

Now, inspectors say Lambeth is offering good support for literacy and its failing schools, is helping schools set challenging targets, and is aiding pupils excluded from school. Its primary school advisers are expert and highly valued.The rate of improvement for national test results for 11-year-olds and the number of good GCSE passes is slightly above the national average.

However, the report found low standards in maths in Lambeth. Two of the four secondary schools which did not opt out of council control, were considered poor.

Too many schools have budget deficits or big surpluses because the authority sends them financial information too late and money is being wasted on keeping surplus places, the report found. Surplus places are still running at 16 per cent in primary schools.

The inspectors were highly critical of Lambeth headteachers and governors: "There is a determination on the part of a significant minority of headteachers and governors to hang on to a dependency culture," they said. Six out of 22 heads did not even bother to attend an authority training session.

Ty Goddard, secretary for education in Lambeth, said: "We have come a long way in a short time. This inspection has been a defining moment for our schools and the authority. It proves that we are on the right track and we can succeed."

t David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education, denied yesterday that government concentration on the basics was taking the joy and creativity out of childhood. He was responding to criticisms from David Almond, winner of this year's Library Association Carnegie Medal for children's fiction, who had accused ministers of wanting to test children while they were still in nappies.