Too small for big contracts

Nicola Porter

Local family firms claim they miss out on inspection work, reports Nicola Porter.

Family-run school inspection companies from Wales are losing business to bigger operators from over the border - because they cannot match their low-cost tenders, it has been claimed.

One Warwickshire company has won more than a third of the autumn 2005 primary school contracts to be awarded by Estyn, the Welsh inspection body.

Evenlode Education, based in Alcester, will inspect 33 out of 86 primary schools from September, more than any Welsh-based company. A spokesman for the company, which has Welsh-speaking inspectors and has worked in Wales for eight years, put its success down to its huge resources and value-for-money bids.

He said larger companies were much more likely to score highly under new quality assessment benchmarks introduced by Estyn, because they were able to cover all the criteria.

Estyn recently changed its criteria for tenders. It now requires, for example, evidence on a company's financial viability and its health and safety policies. Previously, contracts were awarded after consideration of the inspection team put forward by the contractor.

But Wales-based companies that spoke to TES Cymru said Estyn was dropping them for cheaper bidders and companies which did not have their experience.

One source said: "We have a proven track record, but it seems Estyn is willing to pass us over to pay less money for companies which are not so established in Wales."

In England, five large companies, including Evenlode Education, dominate school inspections for the Office for Standards in Education. But in Wales, inspections have traditionally been carried out by smaller companies, some of which are home-run on small budgets.

Another Welsh company source said: "Firms are frightened to speak out in case they lose more contracts. Many inspection companies have excellent track records but are still losing out."

A spokesperson for Estyn said: "Contracts are awarded on the basis of competitive tendering, involving consideration of the quality and price of tenders received.

"Following changes to the common inspection framework, involving shorter notice of forthcoming inspections, quality has been assessed in a different way since autumn 2004. Contractors are now asked to complete quality statements that address a number of risks in relation to the inspection process. More detail has also been required for financial statements."

David Griffiths, owner of family-run company EGIS, has also written to Estyn about its new system for bids, and questioned why he was not awarded a contract.

"I found educational background and experience were no longer the most important requirement for an inspector, but whether or not I could fulfil health and safety requirements."

Mr Griffiths, a former Gwent director of education, has been in a long-running dispute with Estyn over his claims that some schools have bullied inspectors to get better inspection reports.

An independent adjudicator ruled that Estyn had responded appropriately to his complaints.

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Nicola Porter

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