Lib Dem James Kempton is leadingthe way on outsourcing education services. Warwick Mansell reports
JAMES Kempton must be one of the few opposition politicians in the country who knows that doing his job well is good news for the Government.
As Liberal Democrat chair of education in Islington, new Labour's spiritual north London home, he is in charge of the first authority to outsource most of its education services to a private company.
Any successes will - and have been - seized on by ministers as evidence of the effectiveness of their "privatisation" policy for certain failing boroughs. Fail, and the Government will no doubt blame the local representatives.
"It is a strange position to be in, in a way," he admits, before adding that the party was focused on doing the best it could for Islington taxpayers.
However, this is not the only paradox facing the 41-year-old. A history teacher for two days a week at Plashet comprehensive in Newham, east London, he has first-hand experience of education.
Having given up a pound;40,000 job as chief executive of the Royal College of Paediatricians to become a teacher three years ago - his partner who edits a medical magazine supported him financially - and with nearly 20 years in administration in the health sector behind him, he seems a politician of whom Tony Blair would approve.
Indeed, convinced that privatisation was the right option for the borough, he is now attempting to persuade a sceptical party that the policy can be effective.
At the Liberal Democrat party conference next week, Mr Kempton will tell delegates that the private sector can have a role in core education services providing that certain key conditions are met.
The party as a whole is proposing seven tests for any public sector privatisation, ranging from whether the project provides value for money to how fairly it treats its employees.
The thesis will be that privatisation has only so far proved successful in Islington - despite contractor Cambridge Education Associates being fined pound;379,000 for failing to hit improvement targets - because of certain conditions.
The first was the company's willingness to communicate closely with councillors on strategic management. "There is a genuine partnership here," said Mr Kempton, "which comes from the fact that the company is run by former local authority staff."
A second reason relates to the borough's size. Mr Kempton said: "As a small authority with only a few secondary schools, Islington was always going to struggle to recruit the quality of staff that some big-city authorities can command.
"Now, because we are involved with a national education company at the centre of a national initiative, people like Vincent McDonnell (director of education appointed by CEA and former director of the highest-performing authority in the country) want to come here."
Mr Kempton denies the party's position resembles Labour's "what works" pragmatism for the public sector, claiming that Blair is too quick to praise private over public.
But one suspects his speech in Bournemouth will not be entirely bad news for the Government.