US firm takes over in pound;1m deal

20th April 2007 at 01:00
Private troubleshooters move into state school for three years with cash-for-results perk

AN AMERICAN education company is being paid pound;1 million to take over the management of a north London comprehensive school and improve its results.

Edison Schools, the largest private operator of state schools in the United States, took charge this week at Salisbury school, in Enfield, on a three-year contract.

Part of the company's payment will be based on pupils achieving better GCSEs grades and scores in national tests for 14-year-olds.

The management team is being led by Trevor Averre-Beeson, a former head of Islington Green school in north London. He is credited with taking it out of out of special measures and making it one of the most improved in the capital. Two of his former deputies there have joined him at Salisbury school.

Mr Averre-Beeson said it was a "radical step" to outsource the management of a community school to a private business.

"It's a very different way of doing things," he said. "We are bringing together two sets of brilliant experience, from Islington Green and from Edison."

But the move has been criticised as a waste of money by teachers' leaders.

Steve Sinnott, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said:

"The extra cash could be used to employ more teachers and give more tuition to children, rather than filling the coffers of a private company."

John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said it was unusual to turn to the private sector for help when headteachers in the public sector had proved they had expertise to improve schools.

Salisbury school, in a deprived area of north London, with high levels of pupils eligible for free school meals, was taken out of special measures in 2003. Although it is now judged to be satisfactory, Martin Cocks, chair of governors, said it needed extra help to reach higher levels of attainment.

The decision to employ Edison was agreed by Enfield council, but the money will come out of Salisbury school's budget. Mr Cocks said: "We respect that it is public money. We want to demonstrate it is good value and have agreed measures to judge its success."

As well as providing Salisbury school with an executive head, Edison will send in "achievement advisors" to advise staff on assessment and behaviour management.

Mr Cocks said some teachers were enthusiastic about the change, but admitted others were still coming round to the idea.

Edison Schools was founded in 1992. It manages around 100 US state schools, including charter schools, which, like the UK's academies, are independently run but funded by the taxpayer.

Although it has improved many schools' results, it has been criticised by US teachers' unions for privatising education.

Edison struggled financially after its launch, taking 11 years to show a profit. Having been floated on the stock exchange, it was taken back into private ownership in 2003 and is now in a sound financial position, a spokesman said.

Edison opened its UK office five years ago and works in a consultancy capacity with more than 50 primary, secondary and special schools. This is the first time it has taken over a school's entire senior management team.

Lord Adonis, the schools minister, who has met Edison executives previously, is expected to visit Salisbury school within a month.

EDISON SCHOOLS IN PRACTICE

One teacher in the United States has had a mixed experience of working in an Edison school.

Paul Trommelen, 24, spent the past academic year at Barratt middle school in Philadelphia, a city where the company manages several poorly performing schools. He said the most striking difference between Edison schools and others was their rigid curriculum and monthly tests.

The clear guidelines that Edison provided on what maths he should teach his class of 10 and 11-year-olds each week had been highly useful, he said, but it was stressful preparing pupils for the monthly computerised tests they had to sit in key subjects so that the company could gauge progress and compare results with other schools.

"It felt like a complete waste of time. But you didn't want your class to be the worst in the school," he said.

Mr Trommelen felt that the company's emphasis on group work was not always appropriate with inner-city classes where some pupils had behavioural problems. He had also been frustrated by the English curriculum's focus on short extracts rather than whole books.

However, his advice to British teachers on Edison's approach was to "give it a try and give it time".

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