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Chasing the big bucks

Commercial companies are not the only answer to failing local authorities says an all-party committee of MPs. Nicolas Barnard reports

"PRAGMATIC" is the official line taken by backbench MPs on the involvement of private sector companies in education.

It is a word the Government would use for the way it has encouraged entrepreneurs to take over failing schools or local education authorities or contribute to education action zones.

But the report of the House of Commons education select sub-committee contains some trenchant criticisms of the way ministers have pursued this third way in education. "Blinkered" was how committee chair Barry Sheerman referred to it when he presented the report to journalists.

Ministers, the report suggests, are blind to the wealth of expertise and experience that exists in the public sector and which could be tapped more effectively to raise standards in failing authorities. Instead, they appear to see the private sector as the only solution to problems in state education.

But the committee warns that the private sector will soon reach the limits of its ability to step in to authorities such as Hackney and Leeds. Cambridge Education Associates, winner of the contract to run Islington's schools, told MPs in evidence it could not bid for a second authority at present.

"We do not consider that private sector organisations are inherently more skilled or are more likely to achieve high standards than public sector organisations," the report says. Mr Sheerman added: "The private sector is not the only answer."

The most effective intervention in failing authorities is likely to come from linking private sector management skills with public sector educational expertise, the report says. But legal and financial barriers make it hard for the public sector to help. Some contracts set tough targets and included financial penalties for failing. That effectively excluded most local authorities from bidding because they could not afford the risk.

Ministers willingly encouraged successful heads to movetemporarily into failing schools to get them on the right track. Similar arrangements should be considered for local authority officers, the report says.

MPs were also concerned that private firms support, not replace, the local authority, and councillors retain overall responsibility.

The committee visited Charter Schools in Boston and in North Carolina. Their report says they offer positive pointers for city academies, the new schools which will be autonomous but funded by central government. But they found warnings in City Technology Colleges - the forerunners of city academies. CTCs had failed to attract substantial private cash. Ministers would be "naive" to expect city academies to do better, Mr Sheerman said.

RECOMMENDATIONS

PRINCIPLES

* No single model for intervention

* Intervention should take place only when clear case

made that LEA cannot solve its problems itself

* Ultimate responsibility must stay with democratically-elected members - two councillors to be present at all

meetings with bidders

* Parents and other stakeholders must be consulted by bidders.

PRACTICE

Government should:

* Fund scheme to twin under-performing LEAs with successful ones

* Lift restraints on successful LEAs to let them aid those in trouble

* Establish a "cadre" of high-quality public sector administrators to support LEAs in difficulty - possibly modelled on National College for School Leadership

* Commission research on pros and cons of private sector intervention

* Order annual reports by contractors on progress towards targets

* Introduce mid-term reviews in contracts, with opt-out arrangements if contractor failing to deliver

* Reconsider funding arrangments for city academies

Source: The Role of Private Sector Organisations in Public Education, a report by the Education and Employment select committee. Available, priced pound;17, from the Stationery Office on 0845 7023474 or from the committee's website at:

www.parliament.ukcommonsselcomedemhome.htm

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