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Council pulls itself back from brink

Chris Bunting on Calderdale's in-house route to salvation that cost less than pound;75,000

KEY figures in the turnaround of Calderdale, which was regarded as one of the worst education authorities in Britain, have described their success as a poke in the eye for the policy of privatising failing council services.

Calderdale received a positive report from the Office for Standards in Education last week, marking the beginning of the end of a three-year nightmare which made the Yorkshire borough's name synonymous with bad education management.

No services will be privatised and inspectors are not due to return until the next round of council inspections.

Now, its cut-price, in-house route back to health is being contrasted with the high costs of privatising services in other failing boroughs, such as Hackney (see below) and Islington.

The crisis in Calderdale, which hit the headlines in 1996 with a near riot at The Ridings School, reached a peak 12 months ago when the Government appeared to be preparing to send in a "hit squad". However, days before a deadline from school standards minister Estelle Morris, the council dodged the bullet by bringing in its own consultants.

Calderdale's team, provided by the Local Government Association and led by retired chief education officer Simon Jenkin, set in train the shake-up in culture, management structures and personnel that has, a year on, earned OFSTED's approval. The total cost of their work, including the process of recruiting a new management team, is thought to have been less than pound;75,000.

Meanwhile, Hackney is paying pound;1.4 million to hand over failing services to private contractor Nord Anglia, which has already had to replace its project director after only one month in the job.

A similar privatisation scheme in Islington has cost pound;250,000 in consultants fees so far, with a pound;15 million contract up for grabs for private companies wishing to take over its failing services.

According to Neil Fletcher, the LGA's head of education, Calder-

dale's route to recovery was cheap and effective. "It was tough in Calderdale, but it left the responsibility in the hands of the council to put things right," he said.

Carol White, Calderdale's director of education, said the council had demonstrated the advantages of an in-house approach.

"We have still got a long way to go, but the key is we are able to do it ourselves. It is not about failing services, it is about developing trust. I believe that can only be achieved if the education authority as a whole is working with its schools.

OFSTED's inspectors say they cannot give the authority a "clean bill of health". But they are generally positive.

"The key to real progress in Calderdale is trust between the authority and its schools. The director and her colleagues have done much to build and to deserve trust, through an openness and willingness to consult that have not been striking features of Calderdale in the past."

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