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Ofsted council crackdown attracts criticism

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The education watchdog will bring in the new year with a crackdown on councils considered to be failing to improve schools in their areas.

Ofsted marked its tougher approach this week by for the first time releasing the names of  the five worst and best-performing local authorities in England. The ranking is based on the proportion of their pupils that attend ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ primary schools.

Chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw (left) said this morning that inspectors would revisit the areas with the worst results – which include Coventry, Derby and Thurrock – and reinspect schools.

He said: “If we believe at the end of that process that there’s an issue of local authority governance and supervision, that the local authority is not using its powers effectively… we will inspect [the local authority].”

The Department for Education has not denied rumours that it could remove senior officials or force the outsourcing of school improvement services at councils that failed the new inspections.

The prospect of a crackdown on councils has sparked concern among local authority leaders who claim they have limited influence over academies. The tougher approach set out by Sir Michael also threatens to undermine the role of the sector-led improvement regime, they fear.

“The government has extolled the virtues of academies, telling schools they would be freed from council control,” one chief executive told LGC. “Councils have effectively been told to get out of the way. Yet somehow we are now responsible for what our academies achieve. The government can’t have its cake and eat it.”

The LGA has also raised concerns about the plans. David Simmonds (Con), chair of its children and young people board, said a shift towards greater school autonomy had left councils with “very indirect and bureaucratic ways to tackle poor performance and improve schools”.

The government should “free councils from the red tape that weakens [their] intervention powers,” he added.

Cllr Simmonds said, however, that councils’ power to intervene in struggling schools was “a use it or lose it power”, adding that “we acknowledge that in some areas there is more to be done.”

Stephen Castle (Con), lead member for schools at Essex CC, told LGC agreed that councils should be held to account publicly for schools’ performance and welcomed Ofsted’s recognition that councils played an important role in education.

The watchdog should however “be careful” with its new plans, he said. “It needs to bear in mind that local authorities’ ability to affect schools is different in areas with large numbers of academies”, he said.

Cllr Castle also stressed that the new system should not replace the emerging model of sector-led improvement in local government.

“The LGA is doing effective work on sector-led improvement”, he said. “If the department were to set a diktat about the running of things, it would be too far.

“It would be creeping centralisation, and it would be mechanically difficult. Councils are accountable to the electorate.”


Ofsted’s plans

From January, the watchdog’s inspectors will begin scrutinising the worst performing local areas to “find out what is happening, and inspect where necessary,” Ofsted’s chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw said.

Sir Michael said councils should be held to account for the quality of schools in their area because of their crucial role in spreading good practice and stepping in when they spotted signs of failure.

Ofsted’s annual report, which was published on Tuesday, described a “marked inequality of access to a good school across the country”.

“Over four fifths of the children in Dorset and Northumberland attend primary schools that are good or outstanding, whereas only 59% can do so in Shropshire and 56% in North East Lincolnshire.”

Councils’ interventions in struggling schools were “often too little too late”, it added.

LGC asked the Department for Education whether councils could be forced to outsource their school improvement work if they emerged badly from Ofsted’s new inspection regime. A DfE spokeswoman said: “Sir Michael is right that standards in some local authorities are simply not good enough.”

Although education secretary Michael Gove would have the power to intervene in failing councils, any intervention would depend on Ofsted’s findings, she added.

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