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Privatised schools on Tory itinerary

Lucy Hodges and Susan Young report on the implications of the Minister of State's US visit. Controversial American methods for tackling under-performing schools - including handing them over to private companies - are being considered by the Government.

Eric Forth, Minister of State for Education, today began a 12-day visit to the United States which is expected to provide ideas for spending the Pounds 100 million earmarked by the Government to tackle an estimated 3,000 failing and struggling schools.

Yesterday the Department for Education announced details of the Improving Schools scheme, under which some Pounds 30m is likely to go straight to newly-inspected schools to implement improvement plans. The Office for Standards in Education, the Teacher Training Agency and London University Institute of Education will also be involved.

A massive information-gathering and dissemination exercise will also take place. Launching the scheme, Education Secretary Gillian Shephard explained: "I want to assemble information from all sources and spread the best practice to every school in the country. I want to find out what makes a good school good and what makes a failing school bad."

Mr Forth's American findings may also influence the next Conservative election manifesto which is currently being considered, with individual policy groups yet to report and a major series of regional conferences planned. Education is regarded as a crucial electoral battlefield, with its own policy-making group since January.

Significantly, Mr Forth is paying particular attention to schemes in which private companies have been asked to operate schools. Such reforms have taken place in Baltimore, Maryland, and Minneapolis and Minnesota. He will also examine the way computers are used in schools in North Carolina, and Connecticut, and in a successful project in New York City which has reduced truancy by 15 per cent.

His itinerary has worried American educationists who fear he is concentrating on gimmicky political fixes and wonder why he is not visiting some of the highly-respected reform efforts, such as the Coalition of Essential Schools based at Brown University, Rhode Island, in which networks of schools join together to promote long-term change.

"I hope he will not be a fool," said Professor Robert Slavin of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, who is the architect of another reform known as "Success for All" schools. Developments in the reform networks were "vastly more important" than the privatisation schemes, he said.

Privatisation has been hugely controversial in America, with teachers' unions opposed to the Baltimore initiative in which Educational Alternatives Inc, a commercial company, has run nine public (state) schools for the past three years. Mr Forth will visit one of these, Harlem Park Community School, on Wednesday.

"They are schools that model some of the best practices from around the country," said Ramon Harris, divisional president of the company, who will be showing Mr Forth around. Teachers teach small groups, use more interactive techniques than usual and are helped in the classroom by a college graduate. Each classroom has four computers, and there is a computer lab in each school. However, Educational Alternatives Inc has not raised test scores.

What the Baltimore schools have shown is a small rise in attendance rates. At Harlem Park Community School, thought to be one of the toughest ghetto schools in America, attendance is up from 74.2 per cent in 1992 to 79.5 per cent in 1994.

Physically, the school has improved beyond recognition, as have all the schools operated by the company. It has been cleaned, repainted, and landscaped. Rats no longer roam the hallways.

Educational Alternatives negotiated last year to run the entire school district of Hartford, Connecticut, with 32 schools and $200 million (Pounds 12m) a year budget.

Mr Forth will also meet rival organisation Public Strategies Group Inc, a private consulting group hired to run education in Minneapolis. Unlike Educational Alternatives it is paid by results.

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