Walsall faces privatisation

Consultants want external partner to take control, reports Warwick Mansell.

PRIVATISATION looms for another struggling local authority in the wake of an independent report which is likely to confirm a "formidable range of weaknesses" in its support for schools.

Walsall Council is likely to hand control of its education services to an external partner, following damning criticism by consultants PricewaterhouseCoopers.

However, opposition from schools has persuaded the consultants to stop short of recommending full privatisation. Instead, the council would retain a minority stake in the company running the services.

The consultants were called in by the Department for Education and Employment after inspectors found management inadequacies and lack of support for school improvement at the West Midlands authority.

But, if anything, their report is likely to go further than the Office for Standards in Education's. A draft seen by The TES claims the council has not taken on board the seriousness of inspectors' criticism.

It also identifies further failings unreported by OFSTED, including "attempts to control the actions and decisions of governing bodies".

However the consultants found that heads were so concerned about dealin with a private, external provider brought in to run the authority that the viability of such a contract would be under threat.

The draft report says: "We received consistent and clear messages from schools and other stakeholders regarding their concerns over the external provider approach."

For this reason, PricewaterhouseCoopers says the council should set up a joint-venture company, with a public or private-sector partner, to run its education services.

Walsall would retain an interest in the company as a minority shareholder. The firm would report to the chief education officer and a board of local stakeholders.

The Walsall verdict comes two weeks after damning OFSTED reports on Bradford, Waltham Forest and Rochdale. To date, 15 under-performing authorities have had consultants sent in to advise on their futures.

School standards minister Estelle Morris met Humphrey Smith, Walsall's chief education officer, this week.

Mr Smith said: "This is only a draft report, so there is no comment at this stage. There are a number of issues of clarification and accuracy that remain to be resolved and responded to before the final report comes out."

The Department for Education and Employment also declined to comment.

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