TWO-thirds of the management team running a privatised education authority have quit after little more than a year, prompting a crisis meeting with unions and Government officials.
Four of the original six managers at Atkins Education, which was drafted into the London borough of Southwark, have resigned.
Headteachers in the borough questioned the firm's ability to hold on to its top talent.
Some heads said morale among the authority's staff was "extremely low" and that they were preparing to express "very grave concerns" at a meeting at the Department for Education and Skills to be held later this month about Southwark's future.
The company began running Southwark's schools in April 2001 after the council received a critical report from the Office for Standards in Education.
Since the company took over, the education authority has fallen to second bottom in the national primary school league tables.
David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said headteachers in the borough were now suffering a crisis in confidence.
"They are pretty unanimous that they don't have any confidence in WS Atkins," Mr Hart said. "It is a lamentable state of affairs when you bear in mind that they are trying to raise standards against a background of very demanding targets and that Southwark has been in turmoil before and since WS Atkins started."
One primary headteacher in the borough, who wished to remain anonymous, said she had been impressed at first by the calibre of the senior education staff which Atkins had recruited when the company first took over, but felt that things had started to go wrong about a year ago when its staff began to leave.
"The issue for us is that we know that the morale of education officers is very low. They are short of staff and it is very clear that they are under pressure.
"They are working for a corporate company that doesn't seem to understand how education works. When you are dealing with children and schools you require some continuity and stability," she said.
"If four out of six top staff had left a school, serious questions would be asked."
Atkins Education's parent company, WS Atkins, has been under pressure since recording pre-tax losses of pound;32.8 million in December. A takeover was mooted but its shares fell by 7 per cent to around 111p late last month after it was revealed that the company was no longer talking to potential buyers.
Irene Bishop, Secondary Heads Association convener for Southwark and headteacher at St Saviour's and St Olave's CE school, said: "We have no problem with the officers that work in Southwark. It is about the parent company and whether it is having an adverse effect on the retention and recruitment of key personnel."
The meeting between SHA, NAHT and senior civil servants is scheduled for March 24.
An Atkins spokesman said: "Atkins is a business of 15,000 staff and when senior staff leave we manage the situation in a manner which will not have an impact on our clients.
"We listen to staff and work very closely with the council. We are always trying to improve things in the borough and the recent Ofsted report and exam results suggest that the process is working."
A spokesman for Southwark council said the authority was working closely with Atkins and the Government to ensure continued confidence in the borough's education service.
Who left when:
Hilary Pitts, head of school improvement, February 2002
Steve Davis, education director, September 2002
Terry Rollings, joint head of school improvement, December 2002
Geoff Conway, joint head of school improvement announces he will leave in April, 2003.