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Rescue remedies

Have formerly weak London education authorities improved since private companies were brought in to help? Anat Arkin reports

the Government's enthusiasm for private-sector remedies for public- sector ills has led to the total or partial privatisation of half-a-dozen struggling London education authorities over the past three years. But with the weakest authorities already dealt with, there may not be many more of these interventions in future.

WS Atkins, which took over most education services in Southwark in April 2001, is not planning to bid for similar contracts - at least in the short term.

The policy of privatising services to schools got off to a shaky start in the capital. In Haringey, plans for a full-scale privatisation were dropped because none of the contract bids was good enough. In Islington, Cambridge Education Associates (CEA) had money docked from its pound;600,000 annual management fee after disappointing GCSE results.

But where Ofsted has re-inspected authorities since private contractors became involved, it has found improvements. Reporting on Southwark last July, inspectors noted substantial improvements in education services.

Similarly, inspectors found that CEA had helped to instil a new sense of purpose and optimism in Islington. Haringey, where Capita has the more limited role of providing management support and developing the LEA's capacity to deliver successful services, has also received a largely positive Ofsted report.

The private contractors have been quick to take credit for these improvements. "We inherited a good team of people but ... under the contractual relationship there is a much wider capacity to change practice and to work to our own standards, which fall outside the council's boundaries," said Vincent McDonnell, CEA's director of schools services in Islington.

However, some believe that it is poor Ofsted reports, rather than outside intervention, that trigger improvements. Tim Harrison, the National Union of Teachers' regional secretary for east London, says: "I don't think there is any evidence that these same improvements wouldn't have been made at least to this level, if not to a greater level, without outsourcing."

Such criticisms cannot always be dismissed as knee-jerk hostility to privatisation. In Waltham Forest, for example, headteachers initially welcomed EduAction's takeover of the LEA because they felt things could not get much worse. "But they are now saying that things have not got better, even though they have not got worse," says Tim Benson, a member of the National Association of Head Teachers' council.

According to Mr Benson, heads feel that EduAction is failing to consult them properly. He says they have little confidence in the company, which is a joint venture between Nord Anglia and the support services firm Amey.

According to David McGahey of Amey, who is also chairman of EduAction, education development in the borough comes under the scrutiny of Waltham Forest's strategic partnership board. This body is made up of representatives of the council, EduAction, local headteachers and local groups. An unusual feature is the involvement of Graham Badman, chief education officer for Kent, as professional adviser to the board.

Responding to the criticisms of EduAction, Mr McGahey says that the company has gone to great lengths to communicate with headteachers, to put together a good team and to plan for improved services to schools.

Mr McGahey, a former chief education officer for Buckinghamshire, adds:

"I'm not sure if that would have happened as quickly or with as much focus if it hadn't been for the involvement of a private-sector partner - someone from outside who has a real incentive to make the relationship work."

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