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When LEA goes PLC

The county wants to sell its advisory services to other authorities. And, in a move driven by staff, it is calling in the private sector, writes Gerald Haigh.

When you hear that Surrey is about to privatise the greater part of its education department - curriculum support, special needs, governor services, personnel, information technology - and is planning to sell its services around the country, somehow you're less surprised than if you discovered such plans in, say, Barnsley.

But look closer and you realise that this is not the auction of the family silver that it seems to be. Even the term "privatise" jars with Steve Clarke, the deputy director of education. "What we're proposing is a new kind of public-private partnership," he says.

The idea is that Surrey, which is bordered by 14 other education authorities, provides the services and the people - intact, still as a local authority team - while a private partner brings investment and entrepreneurial know-how. Together they will form a new company which is free to trade as a business outside the authority, helping individual schools or authorities with development and management issues and making a trading profit.

Partly in preparation for this move, but also because it's an efficient thing to do anyway, Surrey education services have already been grouped together under the name of 'Four S' (Surrey Schools Support Service) As a unit, it offers a formidable array of talent and experience. This will be the core element of the new venture, its qualities realised, released and developed through creative partnership with a business organisation.

The authority already has a track record in selling its services, such as personnel and curriculum advice, to other places.

"Our personnel consultancy is regarded as one of the best in the country," says Mr Clarke, "and the advisory service works with a number of authorities in the region."

But there are limits to the amount of trading a local authority can do. You can't indulge in entrepreneurial risk-taking with public funds. Hence the need to involve the private sector.

"Colleagues are clearly frustrated by the fact that the county council has to act in a limited form," says Mr Clarke. At the same time, he points out that the Government is opening the local-authority market to private providers such as Cambridge Education Associates.

"A number of authorities have brought in high-level consultancy or support services," he says . "In a few cases, they've taken over the whole authority. There's no secret about the agenda. It's not just a matter of rescuing those local authorities, but of breaking into the local-authority market. If they do well in one place, they'll have a basis to sell elsewhere."

Mr Clarke believes that private organisations seeking work - as well as new people - won't pass successful authorities by. "So doing nothing is not an option," he says. "It'll be a tragedy if we don't find a vehicle to exploit our will to do something in this area - we'll be holding staff back."

That much of the drive is coming from staff is confirmed by Judith Johnson, the chief adviser. "All of us were being headhunted on a monthly basis," she says.

But finding a partner who wants to work with the authority team rather than simply recruit them has not been easy. Ms Johnson says: "From our point of view, there's no value in anything other than partnership. The core thing is getting the right partner - that's been a challenge. We want someone who will complement and not take over. We want someone with the vision who wants to work with us and is prepared to put the money in."

Get it right, she says, and everyone will come out ahead.

But what about the continuity in Surrey's schools? And will schools call for help and find that the person they want is working in another part of the country?

The answer, says Steve Clarke, is that the service will expand to fill the extra demand.

"You hire people before you take on extra work," he says.

And Ms Johnson points out that as things are now, schools can't phone up and get the adviser they want at short notice. "They need to plan at least a term ahead," she says.

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