Gerald Haigh looks at how schools in Bradford and Walsall have fared under Serco, one of the high-profile companies operating in the LEA sector
How do you react to the news that the business that runs Hong Kong's parking meters is now looking after hundreds of schools in Bradford and Walsall?
It is not so strange when you consider that Serco, the company in question, has 35,000 employees across a portfolio of activities concerned with the management of innovation and change. It is also active in the defence sector, running and maintaining installations such as RAF Fylingdales, the ballistic missile early-warning system in Yorkshire.
The involvement of big, multi-faceted businesses in education stems from the Government's belief that a few local authorities are so far off the pace that they are never going to improve without outside help. Responding to what was evidently going to be a new opportunity for the private sector, Serco moved into education by acquiring education consultants Quality Assurance Associates (QAA), thus becoming first Serco QAA and, as of this month, Serco Learning.
Serco's first high-profile contract was in Bradford where, following an inspection in May 2000, the Office for Standards in Education reported:
"The LEA is not assisting its schools to raise standards. We do not believe it has the capability at this time to do so, or to address the many issues raised in this report."
This led, in 2001, to Serco QAA taking responsibility for most of the authority's functions under a 10-year contract linked to rigorous improvement targets.
Then came a similar partnership in Walsall, though in that authority the partnership with Serco has had two distinct stages. First, in December 1999 came the unsatisfactory Ofsted report that led to the authority losing its school improvement functions to Serco QAA. For some months afterwards, part of the authority - with about a quarter of Walsall's 400 school support staff - was run by Serco QAA, and part remained with the council.
Then, in January 2002, Ofsted returned to find that while there were encouraging signs of progress in Serco's part of the operation, those services still with the council - including special educational needs - were still underperforming. As a result, Serco was asked to run the remaining parts of the service, which it has done since November 2002.
For most of us, the immediate mental image of this sort of revolution is one of top-to-bottom change - the new broom, the wholesale clear-out. When you look closely, however, you find that any real replacement of people is typically limited to the top tiers of management. In Walsall, no more than about 10 people were moved in to run Serco's contract - some recruited for educational expertise and some, with other administrative skills, seconded from other areas of the company.
And in Bradford, managing director Mark Pattison talks of "a leadership team of five besides me, and a small number in the next tier - maybe 15 or 20 new people as opposed to about 700 existing staff".
Pattison was recruited from Blackburn and Darwen, where he was chief education officer (it is inevitable that the private concerns will recruit proven LEA managers to run their education ventures). The strategy, clearly, is to assume that the people doing the job are fine and that the way forward is to give them better leadership and access to the resources of a huge organisation.
Serco publicity says, of the company's interest in working with the public sector: "Although they have immense skills and capabilities, they are often unable to deliver exclusively through their own resources and seek partnerships, help and support from the private sector. Serco is an organisation that wants to work with the public sector, to ensure that end-users receive better services than before, as a result of genuine collaboration."
In the end, though, the onus to deliver the looked-for improvement is on the existing schools and teachers. Dennis Carty, once a Rotherham head, latterly with Dudley education action zone and now Serco's director of strategy and school effectiveness in Walsall, says: "We don't interact with the youngsters. We can only affect performance levels of Walsall youngsters through Walsall schools."
So Dennis Carty's priority has been to establish good, supportive relationships with the schools. "We're trying to get to a situation where the education service is embracing schools rather than being a centralised function with the schools somehow out there," he says.
Does that come across in the schools? Bob Szpalek, who is head of Darlaston community school in a relatively deprived part of the borough, thinks it is starting to happen. "What I'm seeing now," he says, "is a level of consultation that I've never experienced before. I'm involved in a number of whole-authority working groups by invitation and by choice."
Szpalek (who, incidentally, is a world-class weightlifter - not exactly a handicap in his line of work) has considerable experience with disaffected youngsters. Now, he feels, the authority wants that experience. "I've put forward ideas to Serco about how to manage kids who won't fit into the box.
I've had a couple of good meetings and I feel my views have been listened to in great detail."
Meanwhile, though, he yearns for a period of stability after a long series of changes - the uncertainties around the Ofsted failures, the two-stage arrival of Serco, and the coming and going of interim managers. Only when people stay in post for a while, he suggests, will heads feel there is committed leadership.
"We've had a succession of people who've come and gone," he says. "That makes you feel insecure. We need security now - the feeling that the same people will be there each time you call."
Elaine Simpson, who becomes managing director in Walsall this month, offers reassurance on this front. "I was in Liverpool for eight years and Sefton for five," she says. "I have two girls of primary age and we're all moving to the Walsall area. I'm coming to stay and make a difference."