Torch will shine into Hackney's dark corners

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The Independent Online
As inspectors prepare to shine torches into the darkest corners of Hackney education authority in search of the reasons for its schools' under performance, the question of where education authorities go wrong is back in the national spotlight, writes Lucy Ward.

Hackney, which yesterday announced it would "welcome" assistance in rooting out failure, is only the second authority to come under the scrutiny of inspectors amid concerns over its record, though up to 10 more may be in line for similar treatment if they do not convince ministers they have the will to improve.

Until the inspection findings are published, the only official analysis of how an authority fails its schools and pupils remains the report on Calderdale, West Yorkshire - the first LEA targeted for an emergency inspection visit.

Calderdale, the inspectors concluded in March after a four-month investigation, was fulfilling its statutory duties, but simply did not do enough to help its schools improve. Communication with schools was often poor, leaving head teachers in the dark over the council's decision-making processes and breeding a culture of distrust.

Meanwhile, councillors on the Labour-run authority were found to be interfering excessively in schools' affairs.

Inspectors even detected hostility towards professional officers among members of the council's education committee, prompting them to make decisions which schools saw as arbitrary.

Amid the power games, Calderdale was found to be failing to monitor its pupils' progress adequately, or to set clear goals for improvement. It was told to draw up an action plan making clear its plans to remedy the information shortage.

Though each failing authority, inevitably, fails differently from the next, Calderdale showed many of the typical signs of an LEA where things have gone awry.

The thrust of the Government's call for LEAs' help in raising standards involves encouraging authorities to keep close tabs on schools' performance in order to target support and advice effectively. Failing to do so adequately, as Calderdale did, means schools such as The Ridings - briefly closed amid a disciplinary crisis last autumn - spiral further into decline.

The political manoeuverings played out in the West Yorkshire authority and present on a far grander scale in Hackney also have their part to play in hampering an LEA's performance.

Hackney has a history of political turmoil including a recent split within the Labour party, and last July the departing education director Gus John cited lack of support from councillors as a reason for his early exit.

For the 12 months since, the authority has had no director of education and, in the words of the schools minister Stephen Byers, has suffered from drift and an absence of direction. If strong leadership is a key element in propelling an individual school towards success, it is no less vital in an education authority.

John Fowler, assistant head of education at the Local Government Association, confirms that the relationship between top councillors and officers is crucial in ensuring an effective LEA.

"A good chair of education begets a good director and vice-versa. Unless you have the political and administrative sides of the local authority working together you are always going to head for disaster."