Point of no return?

Something had to happen in Waltham Forest. The LEA was a mess. But is privatisation really the best solution, asks Francis Beckett

Francis Beckett
Tuesday June 26, 2001
The Guardian

Something had to be done about the education authority in the north London borough of Waltham Forest. Everyone agrees about that, from the education consultants scrabbling for the borough's business, to the trade union shop stewards who may lead their members out on strike against privatisation. Leaving things as they were was never an option after an Ofsted report in May last year exposed the authority's weaknesses.

To Estelle Morris, who was schools minister when she was first consulted and is now education secretary, the answer is the same as it was for Islington and Hackney, for Leeds, Bradford and Sandwell: privatise. If a local authority is not providing education services efficiently, sprinkle some private-sector gold dust over it. It's a one-size-fits-all prescription.

So Waltham Forest's councillors have spent a fraught year watching the unedifying sight of competing companies scratching each others' eyes out to get the business. Next month they have to decide who gets the contract, and they find themselves with only one choice of company. It is, in many ways, a thoroughly unattractive one.

Local education authorities no longer run schools. They have been stripped of their powers, but they still have responsibilities. They provide services, ranging from special needs teaching to clerks for governing bodies, which schools can buy if they wish. They help and advise schools in trouble, and the best LEAs provide valued support to headteachers in their lonely and stressful work.

By common consent, Waltham Forest has not done this effectively for some years. Ofsted listed five failings, including not doing enough to raise standards in secondary schools, and not giving sufficient help to schools with behaviour problems. Former Ofsted chief Chris Woodhead characteristically went further than his own inspectors: the LEA, he claimed, had a "culture of failure and hopelessness".

The local branch of the public sector trade union Unison, whose members work in the LEA, said: "The au thority's failure to act on schools which have been failing . . . has led to parents voting with their children's feet." There was not enough investment, poor collection of statistics, and above all, rotten communications with staff: "The unspoken message is clear: it does not matter that staff . . . are ill-informed because their opinions don't matter."

As with other councils flayed by Ofsted, education ministers made it clear that they would use their power to take over the authority's functions if the private sector was not called in. In came the management consultants PriceWaterhouseCoopers, whose report said: "The LEA does not currently have the capacity to bring about the required improvement," and offered four possible privatisation models. How much Waltham Forest ratepayers paid for their report is a closely guarded secret, but it was at least £250,000.

So in came a company called PPI, to run the education department on an interim basis until a long-term solution was found. And that's where the ethics of private business started to clash head-on with those of the public sector, and things started to get messy.

PPI's core business was doing inspections for Ofsted. It was Ofsted's biggest supplier. Its boss and the owner of a third of its shares was John Haslett, an old friend of Chris Woodhead. He led the PPI team in Waltham Forest, becoming the borough's acting deputy chief education officer.

Then PPI was bought by a much bigger company called Tribal, which sells training packages. Tribal joined forces with the security company Group Four in order to bid for major education projects such as Waltham Forest.

Now that his company was big enough to bid for the £15m a year contract, Haslett, as deputy chief education officer, was in the awkward position of helping to award a contract from which he might ultimately benefit. He claimed that a system of "Chinese walls" would prevent any conflict of interest. But Tribal also agreed that, if they got the contract, they would give Haslett a one-off payment of £5,000. Unfortunately for Haslett, this deal was discovered by another bidder, Nord Anglia's Kevin McNeany, who gleefully exposed it. PPI said the offer had been made before the bidding formally began. But that was the end of Tribal's chances.

By then the bidders had been whittled down to two, and with Tribal safely out of the way, Nord Anglia - which put in a joint bid with the construction company Amey - is the only survivor.

Meanwhile councillors considered the options offered by PWC. They wanted to avoid the virtual annihilation suffered by Islington's education authority. They decided that the council would employ the chief education officer, and take policy decisions, and a company would be appointed to look after the borough's schools and employ all the staff responsible for schools.

That's the contract which Nord Anglia and Amey expect to get next month. Yet there are serious reservations in the borough about them. All three trade unions - Unison, the Transport and General Workers' Union and the National Union of Teachers - are to ballot their members on the question of strike action.

The borough's year-long association with private-sector management in the form of PPI is far from happy. Haslett's £5,000 was an embarrassment. And local heads are not impressed. "They have not delivered," says John Cullis, head at Barclay Junior, who has taught in the borough for 32 years. "We have part-time consultants who are not from our patch. We have not been served well this last 12 months. We have not been getting people who will listen, who appreciate what school improvement is about, who understand the job teachers do."

As for Nord Anglia, staff have failed to take a shine to their style. Union leaders say that their understanding of equal opportunities, vital in a borough with a rich ethnic mix, is rudimentary, and point to a celebrated case in Hackney where Nord Anglia was taken to an industrial tribunal by a black staff member. "I asked them what they understood by institutional racism," said TGWU branch secretary Bob Tennant. "They said they had no experience of it. That indicates that they have no understanding of racism."

There is resentment that the profit for Nord Anglia's shareholders will come out of the borough's education budget. John Cullis says: "Our children should have any help that is going. We don't want a lot of part-time consultants on large salaries." What heads need, he says, is a supportive education service. "Heads are isolated and on their own. If they pick up the phone at 7.30pm, they should expect someone to be there for them."

And there is concern about accountability. Once you privatise a service, it ceases to be directly accountable to voters. A company is employed to run a service, and make a profit. Voters cannot expect to control its decisions any more than those made by their local branch of Tesco.

Kevin McNeany's answer is that although local people cannot control the company with their votes, they can control it by using consumer power. If we fail, he says, you won't send your children to our schools. However, no one has yet devised a school admissions system which gives effective parental choice.

The Waltham Forest proposal is to create a management board consisting of teachers, governors, heads and a very few councillors to oversee the operation of the contract. There is an alternative. Over the last year, the council has recruited some experienced educational administrators as caretakers. Why not ask them to carry on, permanently, and make the changes that are needed?

Unions would welcome it. Unison branch secretary Paul Martin says: "The government has built a set of hurdles which LEAs cannot jump over. Teachers say the government loads schools with too much bureaucracy, but that's true 10 times over for LEAs. When an LEA gets into trouble there is no recovery plan. We need to get a competent set of senior managers and support them." But ministers are determined to see the contract going to a private company, and councillors fear that if they don't deliver this, the government will conduct a scorched earth policy on the council's powers.
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001

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