Bradford's privatised LEA is accused of 'coercive' management by some heads and staff. Martin Whittaker reports.
When inspectors call once more at Bradford's privatised education authority later this month, there will be great interest in the outcome - not least from the Education Secretary.
Much is riding on this re-inspection. Over three years ago, the Government brought in the private company Serco to run education in Bradford. The ten-year contract worth pound;360 million was the biggest of its kind to be awarded to a private-sector provider in Europe.
The Office for Standards in Education had declared the old council-run LEA as failing and lambasted it for its poor leadership. Serco's new service, Education Bradford, was launched in July 2001 with a tough remit: to turn around education and raise standards in Bradford's many failing schools, against a complex backdrop of ethnic diversity and some wards with extreme poverty.
Audit Commission LEA ratings last month gave Bradford one out of a possible three stars. Serco's other LEA, Walsall, improved from one to two stars.
Bradford's last inspection in September 2002 showed some progress, and the potential for improvement was said to be promising. But there still is understood to be much concern about Bradford at government level. The crucial issue is this - can it afford to have another privatisation failure on its hands?
Eleven of the district's 199 schools are in special measures, while five have serious weaknesses. Moreover, some schools have run up enormous debts.
Bradford Cathedral community college, for example, is more than pound;1 million in the red. Headteachers have also been anxious about special educational needs services. An independent report published last January found that heads did not feel there was a clear and shared vision for the development of SEN policy and practice in Bradford.
Meanwhile, within the LEA itself, the pressures of privatisation have taken their toll, according to senior sources. Some claim that Education Bradford has brought in a more aggressive management style that has clashed with the sector's traditional public service culture.
One former employee said he and other senior colleagues had left EB through ill-health or simply resigned. He blamed a poor management culture.
"In the old days you could always use councillors to bring pressure to bear, and you could always raise a question," he said. "The councillors, to be fair to them, were always interested in their staff and generally they would ask questions. With an independent company, you have nobody. There was no one else I could talk to or contact about what was happening in Education Bradford."
Another source described the management style as "coercive". "The management style had a significant impact on some employees, and consequently the organisation was destabilised," he said.
There is also some disquiet among the National Association of Head Teachers about Education Bradford's performance. David Hart, NAHT general secretary, said privatisation of local education authorities has so far had a poor track record, but he added: "I think it's more to do with the people running Bradford than a privatisation issue."
Mr Hart said several discontented NAHT members in Bradford feel matters have not improved since 2001. "I think there's a serious question mark over the ability of Serco to move Bradford in the right direction," he said.
Meanwhile, some heads say there has been a lack of support, a high turnover of personnel in the authority and poor communication. "A lot of people are under a lot of stress," said one primary head. "I think many schools are surviving and doing a good job despite Education Bradford."
Another said: "I think one major concern that heads generally have is that because of the targets within the contract for Education Bradford, there is an element within the ethos of their company of being very target-driven, and looking very much at easily measurable outcomes, because that's what they have to do to justify their contract.
"What we as a generalisation feel is that there's quite a high degree of challenge, but an insufficiently high degree of support. And we do feel hit with targets rather than helped to reach targets."
Another headteacher said there is a tension in Bradford between an elected local authority and a privately-run education service. "It's still confused as to who is doing what, and who is responsible for what," he said.
Some heads in Bradford are more upbeat and have built bridges with Education Bradford. Nine primary and five secondary headteachers have become "education partners", giving a helping hand to struggling schools.
Pat McDermott, head of St Joseph's Catholic college, said: "There are some very encouraging signs. I think the heads feel that for the first time they can introduce some sort of coherence and continuity with all of the various initiatives they have to manage internally and across the secondary sector."
"So groups of heads have been set up to support one another and potentially prevent the loss of another head going under."
Mark Pattison, managing director of Education Bradford, strongly denies claims that the company's management culture has caused senior people to leave. Though he admits the authority has lost some key staff, he says staff mobility rates are no different to those of other education authorities.
"I would reject anything about the management style being responsible for anything of that sort," he said. "We take very seriously the way we work with our staff. We have a set of agreed, published values about how we work and treat our staff. If there are any examples of people not being happy with the way they are treated, we would investigate those, just like any organisation."
He says that given the mess that Education Bradford inherited, it is making good progress. "I think we have made decent progress, though there is a lot still to do," he says. "The international evidence is that it takes four to five years to turn around a failing local authority."
He reels off a list of Bradford's successes. In every key stage and every subject, EB has improved standards at a faster rate than nationally; attendance figures are the best yet in Bradford; permanent exclusions are down.
"In all those areas, we are doing what we set out to do, which is to narrow the gap between Bradford's performance and the rest of the country."
If this is the case, why do some heads have the perception that EB is not delivering? "When you are dealing with 207 headteachers, there will be some who are not happy with what you do," Mr Pattison said.
But he acknowledges there are some things Education Bradford has not got right.
He points out that Serco inherited 30 schools in Ofsted's special measures and serious weaknesses categories, whereas now there are 16. "That certainly is an area that we recognise that we need to improve," he said.
Mr Pattison also acknowledges the heads' concern about special educational needs. "We tried an innovative scheme of working with groups of schools, and we had to accept after operating that for 18 months that it wasn't working and wasn't meeting the needs of schools," he said.
Schools heavily in debt is another area of regret. "We are into a fairly robust process with some of those schools now. We have withdrawn delegation from a couple and we have challenged a number of governing bodies over their budgets."
Asked if he is worried about the forthcoming inspection, Mr Pattison says:
"I believe we will be able to demonstrate to Ofsted that we have made progress since the last inspection, and that we are on the way to getting the LEA to be in a position where it's a good LEA.
"But we are not there yet. There's still a long way to go to get this LEA to where it needs to be."