US firm in bid for Surrey school

17th July 1998 at 01:00
High-level discussions are being held with a view to bringing in outside expertise. Frances Rafferty reports

THE EDISON Project, the company which runs American state schools for profit, could be called in to run a failing school in Surrey.

Benno Schmidt, Edison's chief executive, has had a series of meetings in the county, originally to discuss taking part in a bid for an education action zone. Although he did not get involved in the unsuccessful bid, Mr Schmidt has continued high-level discussions about possible partnerships.

The future of King's Manor school, Guildford, which was to be part of the zone, is now under review by the authority. MP Nick St Aubyn has been involved in talks about the possibility of Surrey contracting out the running of the school to Edison, with staff expected to sign the company's contract and become its employees.

"The school still has to resolve its difficulties and we are looking at the sort of programmes that Edison is doing. We have had constructive discussions and parents have not shown hostility to the idea," he said.

Mr St Aubyn was impressed with the technical support in the 25 schools Edison runs in America. All pupils have laptops linked to the school. "This is something that could really engage British kids, especially those who have not traditionally had much help from home," he said.

Last week Mr St Aubyn asked David Blunkett, the Education Secretary, if he had any objection to schools buying management or teaching expertise from companies such as Edison.

Mr Blunkett replied that he did expect the education system to buy expertise, but state education was not for sale.

Giving evidence to the House of Commons education select committee, Mr Schmidt said Edison was not about privatisation, it was about public-private sector partnerships.

He later said that Edison was holding "informal discussions" with six or more local education authorities and said if he proved Edison could do a good job, it would throw open the door for more partnerships. He estimated that he would need to be involved with 40 to 50 UK schools for it to be financially viable.

He promised Edison would invest between Pounds 500,000 to Pounds 1 million per secondary school and its programme would include teacher training. It would be looking for a 5 to 7 per cent profit after tax. The company takes over the budget of the school and aims to make efficiency savings.

Edison has also raised Pounds 100 million from other companies, including JP Morgan Capital Corporation. But Mr Schmidt admits that in the UK he would only be able to operate by charging a management fee.

He says he measures the success of the schools on the performance of pupils and maintains, on a battery of tests, that Edison schools have improved against national or local norms in 70 per cent of cases.

Teachers and heads in Edison schools are paid 10 per cent more than their state equivalents for working a 210-day year, from 8am to 4pm. MPs were sceptical that he could make a profit with headquarters of 100 staff and bills for teacher training and laptops for every child. Mr Schmidt promised to send the committee more information on the financial details.

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