Give takeover firms free rein, urges Woodhead;News;News and opinion

10th December 1999 at 00:00
Tough contracts will hamper private firms trying to turn round failing education services, says the chief inspector. Clare Dean reports.

MINISTERS are resisting calls by Chris Woodhead to give private firms more freedom when running failing council education services.

The chief inspector of schools believes radical results will be impossible unless businesses are released from the constraints of tight contracts. "Until we get that, I don't think the policy is going to bite in the way that the Government wants," he told a seminar organised by the Public Management Foundation.

But school standards minister Estelle Morris this week said the Government could never be lax with contracts awarded to run public services. Businesses that failed to satisfy would be sacked, she said. Contracts would also be subject to strict financial penalties.

"This is public money and a very important service," she said. "Parents and teachers want us to be robust in monitoring the firm's performance."

Ms Morris spoke out as the Government this week decided against handing responsibility for education in Liverpool over to outsiders. But the authority, which was the subject of a highly critical inspection report in the summer, has itself decided to place its information technology service with private contractors.

The Government's decision flies in the face of advice from consultants KPMG, but follows drastic changes at the council.

A ground-breaking contract between schools and the authority will now be drawn up and a monitoring board, headed by Professor Simon Lee of Liverpool Hope College, has been appointed. The move is part of the launch of a new-style Liverpool council, which has been plagued in the past by political turmoil.

"At the birth of a new Liverpool we want to be clear about where it is going and how it is going to get there," said Ms Morris.

"I am optimistic for the city and the children's futures. There are a lot of good heads in Liverpool who want to be left to get on with the job and now they can do that."

The Department for Education and Employment announced this week that Bedfordshire County Council will play a key role in the contracting-out of failing education services at another authority.

Bedfordshire will work with private consultants Capita and Westminster Education to draw up contract specifications for services in the London borough of Haringey. This will form the basis of any future take-over.

In Leicester, where inspectors said the authority did not have the full confidence of its heads, the council will retain responsibility for schools but be closely monitored. A new independent development support agency will help schools make "wise" spending decisions. There will also be a board, headed by David Hopkins, professor of education at Nottingham University, to monitor the council's progress.

News, page 5

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