Councils seek release from tender trap

13th June 1997 at 01:00
David Blunkett is to be urged to abolish the 'wasteful' system of awarding inspection contracts. Biddy Passmore reports

Competitive tendering for school inspections should be scrapped by the Government, according to local education authorities.

Representatives are to meet David Blunkett, the Education and Employment Secretary, within a month to urge changes to the inspection system - which is widely held to be expensive and bureaucratic. They will urge better use of the money devoted to inspections: the Office for Standards in Education's budget will total more than Pounds 130 million in the current financial year.

The Labour-controlled Local Government Association is redrafting a paper drawn up last year by the Association of Metropolitan Authorities that proposed an end to the tendering process, in which teams of inspectors from the public and private sector compete for contracts. Instead, each LEA would submit for national approval a scheme for ensuring all its schools were inspected and would become responsible for organising inspection teams. These would be nationally accredited with an independent element, paid according to a national scale of fees.

But ministers are adamant - and LEAs accept - that OFSTED should stay. Asked this week what Labour's plans were, a Government source told The TES firmly "that OFSTED should continue inspecting schools and continue inspecting LEAs". Any further proposals would be in the White Paper to be published shortly. Ministers would like to see a greater role for LEA inspectors but not for carrying out inspections in their own authorities, he added.

The current system of competitive tendering was introduced by the previous Government to bring the rigours of the market into the inspection process and, it was hoped, to drive costs down. But, while the cost of actual inspections may have declined (Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector, said recently that the cost of a secondary inspection had come down from more than Pounds 20,000 to Pounds 17,000), the preparation and evaluation of bids ties up a great deal of time in LEAs, private firms and OFSTED.

Alan Parker, formerly education officer of the AMA and now director of education in Ealing, described the mechanism as "cumbersome and wasteful". "It isn't just the bureaucratic cost of seeking tenders, evaluating the bids and communicating with bidders," he said. "It has costs for the bidders too. The unsuccessful ones have to get back their overheads. In a commercial organisation, that pushes up the charge; in a local authority, time spent on bids means less time spent on, for instance, schools."

He thought it likely the pragmatic new administration would do away with tendering for inspections, just as ministers had already announced they would replace compulsory competitive tendering in local government with a "best value" approach.

But few in local government think ministers will agree to go down the path of "moderated self-review" for schools of the type pioneered in Birmingham by Tim Brighouse, the city's chief education officer. Certainly such a move would be fiercely resisted by Mr Woodhead, who considers self-evaluation a cosy option.

Graham Lane, who chairs the education committee of the Local Government Association, said an end to tendering would certainly save money, "flying people from bloody Norfolk to bloody Northumberland".

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