The Government's recent policy paper on the role of LEAs envisages a "third way" option between publicly and privately run services. This would involve a partnership between the LEA, private-sector companies and voluntary groups, such as clusters of schools, in running school improvement and other services.
With pound;1.8 million of pump-priming from the Department for Education and Skills, a posse of a dozen or more LEAs has teamed up with private partners. They are taking part in a pilot project called "New Ways of Working". Its first funding phase concludes this spring.
Foremost among the pioneers is Surrey. It is considering how to shrink its core services and outsource its school support service to clusters of schools. The idea is to have private-sector back-up in a joint venture company. But the county council has yet to choose a partner or commit itself to outsourcing all its support services. Essex, too, has just drawn back from outsourcing its services on a county-wide scale.
Hampshire has set up an assessment centre for training promising headteachers as "associate school improvers", with private-sector expertise from Vosper Thornycroft and Symons Consulting.
There are also several projects in London. The largest and fastest growing of these is the London Partnership. It was started by Hammersmith and Fulham, Tower Hamlets and Kensington and Chelsea with PricewaterhouseCoopers, but now involves other LEAs.
This partnership aims to improve career progression and professional development, especially for advisory and inspection staff. It hopes to share staff expertise and sell it to other boroughs, eventually involving all London LEAs. Tower Hamlets is also setting up a best practice centre with the help of Serco.
But perhaps the most devolved model is that of North Somerset, which has joined forces with Capita, Cambridge Education Associates, heads and governors. The idea is to set up an education partnership board to handle all decisions on the supply of services and leave the LEA to take a strategic overview.
The New Ways of Working website is at http:www.standards.dfes.gov.ukleanewways