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US firm bids for school control

An American company is holding discussions with civil servants on running schools under contract from the Government.

The Edison Project has also had separate talks with the Department for Education and Employment about how a profit-making company might run schools in an education action zone. The company has approached schools in Tameside and has expressed an interest in a zone bid from Surrey.

Edison is not, however, among the leading zone contenders. The company, which runs schools in the United States, is not on the first short-list drafted by civil servants. Officials have begun to visit the 47 areas short-listed from 64 bids and ministers plan to give the go-ahead for 25 next month.

David Blunkett, the Education Secretary, has said companies will not be able to make profit from the zones, but he is keen to have private sector involvement.

Edison's chief executive, Benno C Schmidt jnr, a former president of Yale university, said this week that Government officials have raised the prospect of the company taking over failing schools. He told an audience at the Institute of Economic Affairs that Edison was looking to raise between pound;10 and pound;20 million from UK investors to fund its operations.

He said: "The Government is considering education action zones where there might be a role for publicprivate partnership. It may be possible to enter into management arrangements with local education authorities and governors."

There are fears among teacher unions about the involvement of companies for profit. However, John Bangs, head of research at the National Union of Teachers, said its co-operation on action zones was dependent on bidders agreeing that teachers would be consulted and there would be no worsening of pay and conditions.

The Association of Teachers and Lecturers has written to Mr Blunkett expressing concern that its analysis of bids reveals a lack of detail on teacher representation. The bids it has studied include one from Barking and Dagenham that focuses on primary schools with nurseries; from Leicester that links with a health zone and economic regeneration and from Cumbria based on Barrow schools.

Edison runs 25 schools in the US and is opening another 20 in the autumn. The company claims its success in raising standards is achieved by prescriptive teaching, teacher training and technology in schools and pupils' homes.

A DFEE spokesman said: "No commitments have been given, but we are always interested in new ideas from public and private sector organisations about a range of initiatives."

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