Blair advisers `urge' school privatisation

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SHADOWY ADVISERS around the Prime Minister are pushing the Government into the privatisation of schools, local authority leaders said yesterday.

David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education, will tell local government representatives today that private companies may be invited to take over failing local education authorities. But council leaders suggested that a division between Downing Street and Mr Blunkett lies behind his tough talk about privatisation.

Neil Fletcher, education officer of the Local Government Association, which represents local councillors, said: "The flames are being fanned by unnamed Downing Street advisers ... We don't think it will happen."

Mr Blunkett will tell the North of England Education Conference in Sunderland how the Government intends to use new legal powers; if local authorities are not up to the job, they will be taken over by neighbouring education authorities, private companies or voluntary organisations.

Private companies are already encouraged to help to run new education action zones designed to raise standards in under-achieving schools. Tory councillors in Surrey have invited tenders for a private company to run a failing state school.

Local councils yesterday announced a campaign "to keep education democratic". Graham Lane, chairman of the Local Government Association's education committee, said: "The idea that somehow you can fail a local authority and send in Virgin Trains or Kellogg's Cornflakes or McDonald's to sort it out is ludicrous."

Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the National Association of School Masters Union of Woman Teachers, said: "If local government fails they are going top send in all sorts of undemocratic forces. If national government fails are we going to send in the military?"

It was immoral, he added, to make profits out of public services. Mr Blunkett has consistently denied that the Government wants to privatise education. He says companies will not be allowed to turn education into a money-making enterprise.

Mr Lane said that "shadowy creatures" in Downing Street took a different view though there was no evidence that Mr Blair agreed with them.

He said: "Mr Blunkett is one of the best education secretaries this century, certainly since the war. He is one of the most formidable members of the Cabinet. He will not be undermined but that won't stop people trying."

The Government hopes the speech, the first by a Cabinet minister since the resignation of Peter Mandelson, will demonstrate that the new Labour project of modernisation is on track and that ministers are standing firm against "vested interests" in education.