The Leeds and Swindon experience

24th January 2003 at 00:00
Education staff in Leeds get annoyed if you suggest that their service has been privatised. As they point out, what they have had since April 2001 is a not-for-profit company that is wholly owned by the city council and is chaired by Peter Ridsdale, chairman of Leeds United Football Club.

There are, though, similarities with what has happened in "privatised" authorities. The title of the new company, "Education Leeds", echoes Serco's "Education Walsall", for example. And the background story is in line with that of other authorities in trouble. After a highly critical Ofsted report in February 2000 the Government made it clear that the status quo was not an option for Leeds.

It would not be true to assume, though, that there is no private-sector involvement in Education Leeds. The new company was formed in partnership with Capita plc, which is represented on the board and at officer level as well as providing consultancy services. A re-inspection by Ofsted last July found big improvements under the new regime. The latest report says: "In a relatively short time, Education Leeds has become an effective organisation."

Leeds has a long civic history and has been in the education business from the start. Swindon, by contrast, became a unitary authority in 1997. Four years later, in September 2001, Ofsted found that the council was not up to the job of managing the service.

The way forward for Swindon turned out to be a partnership with Tribal plc, which became "strategic partner" to the authority in May 2002 and has moved in a senior management team led by John Simpson, previously chief education officer of Brent.

He says it is the private sector's ability to make quick management changes that gives it an advantage. "They can bring in very experienced support at short notice. LEAs can't do that."

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