WORKING PRACTICES in supermarket chains and other big firms could hold the key to improving performance in schools, ministers believe.
The TES has learnt that a working group on Gordon Brown's new National Council for Educational Excellence is examining whether private sector strategies would help schools deliver more consistent performances. Ministers are worried about the "variability" between schools. The Government thinks it can learn from council members such as Sir Terry Leahy, the boss of Tesco, who work in organisations that see the huge variance between the highest- and lowest performing schools as alien.
Ministers admit there are big differences between the two cultures and that a McDonald's-style system with identical management structures and buildings would be inappropriate for schools that need creativity to thrive.
Instead, they want schools to "build capacity" from the bottom up. But they still think schools could be helped by techniques used in private sector firms to ensure consistency.
But John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, disagrees. "The private sector model is much too centralised," he said. "Branches of Tesco are much too like each other to offer us very much. There is much more to be gained from building on the independence of schools and allowing them to develop their own ethos."
The Government also plans to target parents in the coming months in an attempt to reach the final fifth of pupils who are still not reaching "expected" standards.
Jim Knight, schools minister, told a fringe meeting at the Labour party conference in Bournemouth last week: "The single thing that determines the quality of schools is the quality of teaching, and the most important determinant for a child's outcome is the quality of parenting. We have to bring those things together."
He said there were three tiers of parents: most were responsible and knew what was best for their children. For them, it was just a matter of providing the services they needed. Other parents needed some special help because of the particular nature of their children, but they were willing to engage with schools. And a "tiny minority" were irresponsible, he said.
Ministers believe schools should make better use of the "sticks" they have to encourage the latter group to get more involved in their children's education.
"We want to make parents more pushy and schools more pully, rather than saying to parents, 'Education is our job and you can go away when you get to the school gate,'" said Mr Knight.
* McDonald's has offered training for school leaders. Managers with "ketchup in their veins" run courses offering tips on leadership, team-building and stress management.
* Big firms such as HSBC, Boots and Merrill Lynch give employees time off so that they can offer their expertise as school governors.
* Many state schools are turning to commercial headhunters to help them recruit senior staff. Henrietta Barnett, a secondary in north London, paid around pound;20,000 to recruit a new head.
* Partners in Leadership. The Business in the Community scheme has twinned thousands of heads with local company bosses so that they can learn from each other.
* Many businesses have spent up to pound;2 million sponsoring academies, giving them partial control of the semi-independent state schools. Others sponsored the Tories' city technology colleges including, controversially, British American Tobacco, which backed one in Middlesborough.