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Private firms to take over councils

Blunkett to announce drastic measures for weak authorities. Frances Rafferty reports

PRIVATE companies will be in the running to take over the services of failing local education authorities, Education Secretary David Blunkett is expected to announce today.

In his speech at the show-case North of England education conference in Sunderland, Mr Blunkett will tell councillors and officers that private companies, other LEA officers or non-profit making organisations will be called in if authorities are deemed to be failing, a move allowed by the School Standards and Framework Act.

While the private sector is already involved in action zones - which work alongside LEAs - this is the first time ministers have suggested that an authority could itself be taken over.

Mr Blunkett will set out what his expectations are for effective LEAs and will emphasise their role in raising standards. He is also expected to praise the performance of the London borough of Newham and Bury, both of which have won plaudits from the Office for Standards in Education.

Concerns that the development amounts to greater privatisation may not be justified, according to a leading firm of education providers. Instead it will lead to greater central government control, says Neil McIntosh, managing director of the non-profit making Centre for British Teachers.

"Private companies cannot take over all the statutory duties of local authorities. Somebody will have to be the guardian of the public purse and take over the task of ensuring the education development plans and school targets are fulfilled.

"Whoever does that would have to work to the Department for Education and Employment. Private companies would be interested in providing services, but they cannot do both."

Graham Lane, education chair of the Local Government Association and Newham, is also cautious about private-sector intervention. "We believe LEAs should be accountable. But the idea that you can parachute in ready-made plans from Whitehall is a nonsense - as is the idea that businesses want to run schools."

Instead, he will be proposing help squads to be used in the first instance. These would be made up of senior education officers, DFEE officials and business people.

LEAs are to be inspected by the Office for Standards in Education with the Audit Commission every five years.

The conference will also hear from Don Foster, Liberal Democrat education spokesman, and Conservative David Willetts.

Mr Foster will be putting pressure on the Education Secretary to give teachers a "decent" pay rise.

Mr Willetts will voice concern at the level of Government control in education. He said: "I am amazed at the willingness among the profession to accept the level of control and huge increase in centralisation under Labour. The shift in balance from LEAs to central government is marked."

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