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Secondaries back private enterprise

TES survey shows the tide is turning against LEAs. Jeremy Sutcliffe and Jon Slater report.

TWO-THIRDS of secondary school heads are in favour of private companies becoming more involved in delivering education services, a TES survey suggests.

More than a quarter of the heads who responded believe that a most local education authority services should be managed by private companies, while four in 10 say that underperforming services should be privatised. One in 10 say LEAs should be abolished.

These startling figures, which reflect widespread dissatisfaction with the quality and value for money schools receive from LEAs, will add further impetus to ministers' crackdown on failing councils.

More than a third of secondary heads were in favour of privatising administration and payroll, three in 10 wanted inspection and advisory services to be contracted out and almost a quarter wanted private companies to run special needs services.

From April, councils will face increased pressure to contract out services wherever there is evidence that private involvement would raise standards.

Under the new Best Value legislation, which applies to all local authority services, the Office for Standards in Education will single out councils if they fail to consider private-sector involvement.

The survey found that almost half of secondary heads were in favour of one or more of their own LEA's services being privatised.

Four in 10 said LEAs fail to give value for money - with former grant-maintained schools most critical. Ex-GM heads, who have the greatest experience of managing their own budgets, wre also keenest to see services privatised.

But while secondary heads are heavily critical of LEAs, primary heads were less concerned. Six in 10 believed LEAs werre doing a good job and should be "allowed to get on with it". However, a quarter were in favour of privatising one or more of their LEA's services.

The TES survey is based on questionnaires sent to a representative sample of 1,000 primary and secondaries in England and Wales. Returns were received from 153 secondaries and 184 primaries.

From April, increased delegation to schools will give heads an additional option, under the Government's new Fair Funding regime. This will enable them to opt out of many council services and buy them from private companies. However, it is unclear what choice will be available to them. LEAs will be able to retain money for special needs.

The TES survey comes amid growing ministerial concern about the political impact of a lengthening list of damning inspection reports of urban authorities, many of them Labour run. Local government leaders have held talks, in recent weeks, with education ministers and Downing Street officials in a bid to avoid damaging publicity in the run up to the next election.

Council leaders met chief inspector Chris Woodhead this week to discuss options for early intervention in authorities likely to fail their inspections and the implications of Best Value.

Ministers are understood to have a list of 15 authorities, including Sheffield, formerly led by Education Secretary David Blunkett, which they expect to be be heavily criticised in forthcoming OFSTED reports.

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