Whatever the election result, schools will soon have even more choice of where to buy their services. Martin Whittaker reports on Rotherham's innovative brokerage scheme
Last winter's downpours put the private cleaning contractors at Wath comprehensive school, Rotherham, well and truly to the test. "We've had large areas of mud and that has brought a lot of extra dirt into the buildings," said the headteacher, Robert Godber. "I think the cleaning contractor has realised that there's more to do than it might have bargained for."
Nevertheless, he is happy with the service since he put the school cleaning out to tender. "The company has been more accountable, it has placed greater emphasis on training and it has brought an expertise to the job. There has been far greater communication with the school than we had with the old local education authority service."
Mr Godber's endorsement of contracting-out would have pleased his most famous former pupil, the Tory party leader William Hague. But the Labour leadership would also be reassured by his testimony. It has been keen to find out how the delivery of local services can be improved, and has been considering how more could be contracted out.
From September, Wath comprehensive and other Rotherham schools will have more reason to buy in services because they will be able to use an independent brokerage offering a full range of alternatives to those supplied by the local education authority. This is the first time a brokerage has been set up as part of an improvement strategy for an authority. Rotherham was chosen following a report last year by the Office for Standards in Education which criticised the quality and efficiency of its school support services.
Other troubled authorities - such as Hackney, Islington and Bradford - were forced to contract out services. But while Rotherham heads were in favour of outsourcing school services, they also recognised that they had limited experience of it. So a different approach was recommended.
In January this year, the Department for Education and Employment, in conjunction with a panel of heads and governors, appointed a public-private partnership to run a brokerage. The partnership - management consultants Windsor amp; Co and Essex County Council - has taken the name Transformational Education Services.
Its job is to to find out what schools need, develop a market to give them a choice of good quality and value-for-money services, find the providers, negotiate on their behalf, and manage and monitor service contracts. Brokerage staff have visited all but two of Rotherham's schools to sell themselves and assess what they need.
"There has been a huge amount of work to win people's trust, to get them to understand what the brokerage is about and to displace some of the misconceptions," says Nick Jarman, who heads the initiative.
"And there were a lot of those - that it was handing the thing over to the private sector - profiteering."
He describes the brokerage model as the opposite of what has happened in authorities such as Islington or Leeds, where everything is taken away from the town hall and handed to a private contractor.
It will be an open market, says Mr Jarman, who describes the brokerage as a "virtual Argos catalogue", offering services from private suppliers and other local authorities. Schools choose whether they use the brokerage, continue with Rotherham local education authority's services or find them elsewhere.
"No one has to use this," he says. "The thing sinks or swims to the extent that it's successful and schools believe it adds value to their work."
The brokerage is already providing some training and advisory services. By September, it will offer the full range, including school meals, cleaning, ground maintenance, special needs support services, personnel and payroll.
Initially, it prposed charging both schools and suppliers of services, but the schools were unhappy about this. Nick Jarman says the charges will now be met by the supplier alone, but admits that the extra costs will still be in the supply chain and schools will still pay, albeit indirectly.
"We've made a commitment that we will share any future profits with Rotherham schools as stakeholders in this venture," he says. "We've made it very clear that our paramount motive wasn't just profit-making."
If Labour wins next week's election it will want to see more independent brokerages such as Rotherham's, which could operate regionally, or even nationally, to connect schools with suppliers offering the best value.
Bruce Douglas, a former president of the Secondary Heads Association, said that schools should have nothing to fear from opening up markets for services.
"I start from the position that schools should be free - everything that the school can control should be delegated to it," said Mr Douglas, whose school, Branston community college in Lincolnshire, opted for grant-maintained status in 1993. "And that has come to be not too far short of the Government's latest position.
"There is a view around that it's fine (to outsource services) when it comes to things such as property services, drains or books, or even personnel advice. But when it comes to raising standards, then that's the new empire for LEAs - I don't accept that. What matters is that standards are being maintained and raised where possible, even if the LEA or something outside the school should have a democratic responsibility for seeing that things don't go wrong.
"The LEA could have that role without doing any of it. So if the best person for what you want is in Northumberland, that's who you phone.
"I think we could be moving to that model, where the LEA backs off not just the bricks-and-mortar services, but the educational services as well."
WHAT THE HEADS THINK
Gayle Oglivie, head of Laughton Junior and Infants, Rotherham "I've been delighted with the services that my school has received from the local education authority, with the exception of some things, such as ground maintenance. I couldn't fault the help that this school has received from the advisory service.
"We have no guarantees that the people the brokerage are going to provide are going to be any better than we have already. I'm afraid I'm a great believer in the local authority.
"Since the Ofsted inspection of this LEA, I've never felt so lonely. I feel the LEA has been told to back off and that I'm on my own. And I don't think headteachers can afford to feel isolated like that. We can't all be ploughing our own furrow - it's too time-consuming."
Robert Godber, head of Wath Comprehensive School, Rotherham "The brokerage does seem to be an attractive notion because it provides an independent adviser between the schools and the LEA. The problem with local authorities is that they have to advise schools on the best course of action to access the best service, but at the same time they are service-providers.
"I'm very interested in what the brokerage can offer in terms of specialist subject advice.
"It's an area that I think is seriously lacking."
Lawrence Morton, head of Wales High School, Rotherham "Now that local management of schools has been in place for nearly a decade, I think many of us have got used to looking at best value. There has been no element of compulsion (over using the brokerage). That would have been anathema to the approach we've had in the past few years.
"I think to say that the brokerage is of major importance would be an overstatement - it's part of a packet of options that schools have if they wish to go down that route. But it sits alongside the expertise that still exists within the LEA and, quite frankly, now exists within schools."