Shephard sends in her education hit squad

Schools under scrutiny: Inspectors say Ridings authority let down pupils and staff as the first league tables are published
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The Independent Online
A team of government advisers is to be sent in to Calderdale education authority after inspectors found the council was failing to support its schools, teachers and pupils.

The move, announced yesterday by Gillian Shephard, the Secretary of State for Education, will create a model for the "hit squads" a re-elected Tory government would parachute into other authorities it judged to be failing in their duties.

Calderdale, which agreed to an inspection after a discipline crisis last November at the Ridings School, Halifax, was told to seek help from the team - which could include chief executives of successful authorities and leading headteachers - to draw up an action plan by 18 April.

Mrs Shephard's recommendation came despite the fact that Labour-run Calderdale, though strongly criticised in the inspection report published yesterday, was not found to be failing in its statutory duties to schools. She was accused by the authority and by Labour's education spokesman David Blunkett of attempting to turn the report into a political football.

Calderdale's director of education, Ian Jennings, stressed that a fax from Mrs Shephard to Mike Higgins, education chairman on the council, had included "no suggestion that Calderdale is a failing authority". The council was not minded to refuse the advisers' help, but was "not interested" if the offer was just another way of attacking a Labour council.

A 10-strong team from Ofsted, the schools watchdog, found that the West Yorkshire authority had no convincing strategy for school improvement and was failing to meet its own aims. It did little to help schools do better and lacked data on pupils' performance, hindering attempts to measure progress and plan strategically.

Standards in Calderdale's secondary schools, particularly the three in Halifax itself, were significantly below national averages and were not improving at the national rate.

The LEA suffered from a "severe credibility problem" in the eyes of some schools. Though education was given a high priority, some headteachers and governors expressed "hostility and suspicion" towards councillors. Schools were left in the dark over the rationale behind decisions, and councillors interfered excessively in the LEA's work.

However, the inspectors acknowledged that changes in control of Calderdale - which has alternated between Labour and no overall control - had produced prolonged uncertainty for the education department.

Mrs Shephard yesterday said the report proved the Government was right to call in inspectors following trouble at the Ridings. It showed that new powers in the Education Bill before Parliament allowing the Secretary of State to ask Ofsted to inspect any LEA were "sorely needed", she said.

Labour also proposes LEA inspections and improvement teams for those thought to be failing. Mr Blunkett yesterday called for Calderdale to be given time to work with the advisory team with "a little less shouting from the sidelines from the Secretary of State".