Six firms shortlisted for nursery contract

Six companies have now been shortlisted to run the inspection service for nursery schools participating in the nursery vouchers scheme. None of the companies is in the business of education.

Two are security companies, as revealed in last week's TES: Group 4 and Securicor. The other shortlisted companies are: CSL, a subsidiary of accountants and management consultants Deloitte and Touche; ZYen, risk reward managers; Handling Solutions Ltd, a subsidiary of the Park Food Group which describes itself as "a specialist in fulfilment, distribution and database management solutions"; and SIA Ltd, social research consultants.

The successful bidder will become the contracts administrator, responsible for an estimated 16,000 nursery inspections throughout England. It will appoint sub-contractors to inspect between 50 and 100 nurseries each. It will be allowed to appoint any sub-contractors it chooses, so long as the sub-contractor uses inspectors who are registered with the Office for Standards in Education.

Sub-contractors can be local authorities, charities, educational organisations or private companies. They will not normally employ inspectors full-time, but hire them on a freelance basis when they need them. Inspections are supposed to be done with a "light touch".

All six firms claim they can run the scheme effectively. ZYen says that one of its directors, Stuart Otter, "assesses all risks, commercial, legal, human resources, technical". CSL says it has "no interest in the downstream inspection work" and supplies accountancy services to Berkshire council. Handling Solutions manages Sainsbury's new Reward Card. "Our core business is IT-based customer-service solutions," says a spokesman. SIA already collates data from school inspections for OFSTED and puts them into a common format. All the companies have been left with the impression that OFSTED excluded organisations whose core business was education, though OFSTED refuses to confirm this.

Local education authorities have been asked to bid as sub-contractors to run inspections, but OFSTED has not told them about the contracts administrator. Most of them are still under the impression that they will be bidding to OFSTED.

OFSTED refuses to say how much is being spent on the exercise. But more than Pounds 10 million of public money will pass through the contracts administrator's hands.

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