Who's staying the course?

4th April 2003 at 01:00
Elaine Simpson, managing director of the company that runs Walsall's education service, made a simple but impressive declaration when she started work in January: "I'm coming to stay and make a difference."

Unfortunately, it is now evident that many of the other education company managers drafted in to support England's most enfeebled local authorities have neither stayed nor made a difference. WS Atkins, which runs education in Southwark, has thrown in the towel. And as our Analysis article (page 25) indicates, too many other privatised LEAs are failing to impress the inspectors.

Perhaps it was unrealistic of the Government to believe that multi-faceted companies, which run everything from Hong Kong's parking meters to ballistic-missile early-warning stations in Yorkshire, could get to grips with education. It is, however, too early to stamp "another failed experiment" on LEA privatisation. Some companies have only been managing services for a few months. Other firms point to the daunting problems they took on and say judgment should be postponed for a year or two.

In the meantime, we are unlikely to see any more LEA privatisations. But that does not mean the pressure on local authorities will diminish. Charles Clarke made that clear in a typically bullish speech to chief education officers last week.

The Education Secretary acknowledged that some authorities are exemplary but said others should do much more to improve literacy, numeracy and school attendance. If they continue to resist the Government's agenda, he said, they risk being bypassed. LEAs have long known that, of course. They also did not need reminding that the Learning and Skills Council - now responsible for funding and planning post-16 education - and the growing networks of collaborating schools present them with fresh challenges.

Nevertheless, CEOs seemed pleased to be offered a more honest partnership with central government. However, it is questionable whether Mr Clarke will be at Education long enough to experience the benefits of the new compacts he proposed. Like Mrs Simpson of Walsall, he is determined to make a difference. But like most ambitious politicians, he does not seem the staying kind.

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