We all need to work together

21st September 2001 at 01:00
An inflexible stand for or against private-sector involvement in schools can blind both parties to the benefits of partnership work, writes Rod Aldridge

The publication of the education White Paper last week triggered a new phase in the debate about the role and contribution of the private sector in education.

It is too easy to adopt inflexible positions which can lead to a polarisation of the debate rather than move towards a consensus driven by the common objective to raise standards and opportunity for all. However, there is, I believe, a way forward which will enable the public and private sectors to work together to sustain public service values, maximise investment in education, and provide a world-class system that the UK needs, and our children and teachers deserve.

There are companies keen to support the drive to raise standards which can offer practical solutions to challenges facing schools and education authorities. The private sector has an enormous contribution to make in supporting maintained education but the terms of its involvement must be clearly defined and always demonstrate added value. It is vital that it is also under democratic and accountable control.

Capita, the company for which I work, is committed to providing easy access for schools to a wide range of Best Value services, making the most effective use of the latest information and communications technology. At the same time, we are fully committed to working in partnership with LEAs to enhance the work they already do in raising standards in schools, where we can bring added value to what the local authority does.

Successful authorities have a vital role to play in raising standards. We believe that sustainable improvement across the maintained schools sector is best served by retaining LEA responsibility for ensuring high standards of provision in schools, in accordance with the principle of intervention in inverse proportion to success. Local authorities are central to providing leadership, acting as advocates for communities, promoting the economic, social and environmental well-being of the areas they serve, and ensuring that the school community plays a leading role in this. Companies with the right competencies and the right values - and these should be tested - can provide specialist resources and capacity to local authorities to help them be successful in this role.

While strategic decision-making should remain the responsibility of elected members, we believe that all LEA management functions can be provided either in-house or through a partnership with an external organisation and that the approach to provision should be based on Best Value principles rather than any presumption that either in-house or private-sector provision is automatically better.

It is legitimate for LEAs to engage suitably-qualified external partners to act as agents on their behalf in relation to their functions, including the power to intervene in individual schools, but with statutory responsibility and ultimate control over the approach to intervention resting with the authority. Target-setting and the control of outcomes that affect local communities (such as school closures and new school developments) should rest with elected councillors and the involvement of external partners should be regulated through performance targets, monitoring and reporting systems and clear lines of accountability determined by the council.

Even the best LEAs will, at times, face capacity problems and may need to bring in external help, just as any large-scale service organisation would. Such capacity problems are likely to increase as a result of the Government's policy of seeking to increase the levels of delegation of resources to schools. The private sector can play a valuable role in offering strategic resources to LEAs, and in providing cost-effective support to both LEAs and schools.

A first-class private-sector partner must have a breadth and depth of expertise across a range of services and sectors. Above all, it must have a commitment to public sector education providing opportunity for all.

Schools can benefit greatly from the support of external bodies including private sector companies. Governors and head teachers should apply best value standards to determine how they will proceed. Schools already buy supplies and others services from a range of suppliers. Just as local government has a major democratic and strategic role to lead education, so community governance is essential for schools.

There must be a commitment from Government and society as a whole to achieve excellence for every student and pupil. We should draw on the best from the public and the private sector to deliver bespoke solutions for achieving that goal. The education White Paper provides the platform for achieving that end.

Rod Aldridge is executive chairman of Capita Group Plc

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