THE first race for private firms who want to take over the running of a state secondary school is likely to be staged by Conservative-controlled Surrey later this year.
The county's education director is expected to invite bids from companies with expertise to reverse the fortunes of the failing Kings' Manor school, a 750-place comprehensive in Guildford.
This could see the biggest names in the field - Nord Anglia, CfBT and the American-based Edison - competing head-to-head to run a segment of the state sector.
Initial proposals from three leading education companies are to be discussed by the education committee on Monday when councillors are due to decide whether the school should be closed or given a fresh start.
In his report to the education committee, director Dr Paul Gray says the local community wants the school to survive and he recommends an attempt to relaunch it.
The paper suggests a deadline of late November for bids, and submission of plans to the Education Secretary, David Blunkett, by next spring. The headship might be advertised next summer and the post filled by September 1999.
Numbers at Kings' Manor - which is surrounded by some of Surrey's highest-achieving schools have fallen to around 400 and the Office for Standards in Education reported in July that measures were required to improve attendance, behaviour and pupils' progress. GCSE results are less than half the national average.
Dr Andrew Povey, chair of the education committee, says councillors are prepared to consider radical ideas. "There has already been a relaunch of this school in 1990. Private companies are suggesting they are prepared to invest in it. They are likely to want to give it a new name and pick the staff," he said.
The first approach was from the Edison Project, but the company is unlikely to proceed unless it can persuade other education authorities to hand over failing schools. The company suggests its profit could come from retaining excess income from the school's budget or a management fee.
The others include Nord Anglia, the largest commercial education organisation in the UK, which is proposing to turn Kings' Manor into a "millennium school" based on a centre for excellence for information technology, languages and business education. The company has not submitted details of its costs but is suggesting it should be paid a performance-related management fee.
The detailed paper from CfBT, the non-profit-making company that is jointly managing an action zone in the London borough of Lambeth, also opts for the creation of specialist business school. It favours performance-related pay for teachers and selection of 10 per cent of the intake.
The Government is asking all local authorities to draw up plans for tackling failing schools. Councils have been told to consider closure or Fresh Start where schools have been on the failing list for two years or more.
However, Dr Povey believes Surrey's Conservative group has far more radical ideas for dealing with such schools. "We are way ahead of any Labour thinking. I doubt whether Mr Blunkett wants to see the Edison Project running schools, " he said.