US firm in line to take over the running of British schools

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A company based in America could soon become the first foreign firm to take over the running of state schools in the UK.

Edison, the largest private sector operator involved with state schools in the US, is in discussions over whether to join Tony Blair's academies programme.

The firm, which has about 1,000 schools in the US teaching about 300,000 children, is also anxious to take advantage of the school reforms and play a pivotal role in setting up a network of new independently run state-financed "trust" schools throughout the country.

It is a move that could backfire on Mr Blair and his beleaguered Education Secretary, Ruth Kelly, by fuelling the resentment of teachers' leaders.

Edison's chief executive, Chris Whittle, flew to London earlier this week for talks with Sir Cyril Taylor, the Government's chief adviser on the academies programme, about its possible involvement with the scheme. Mr Whittle said: "At the moment, we don't have any whole school management involvement in the UK but we're very interested in that. We find the academies programme very interesting and would like to engage in that in the future. I also actually find the whole idea of the trust movement inspired and would like to get involved in that."

Sir Cyril, who is chief executive of the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, said he was planning a visit soon to two of Edison's schools in Washington.

Edison, which is a profit-making company, began as a private sector company working with schools in 1992 - when it was invited to take over the management of some of the most difficult and challenging schools in the US. It also runs "charter" schools - where a local authority hires an outside contractor to run its schools.

Sir Cyril said the US charter schools were run along the lines of academies, adding: "Some of them have done extremely well and I think they could be offering the academies programme some expertise.

"They could open a showcase academy and be like the United Learning Trust (a Christian charity that runs several academies) with several flowing from that."

At present, though, Edison's involvement with academies is more likely to stem from sponsors hiring it as a commercial organisation to run their schools.

Edison's decision to concentrate its expansion plans on the UK will fuel criticism from teachers' leaders and rebel backbench Labour MPs over the Government's school reforms.

Already more than 70 have signed an alternative schools White Paper calling on the Government to water down its reforms and restrict schools' powers over admission of pupils.

Steve Sinnott, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, added: "Our attitude to Edison is that it is a for-profit company. Their interest in running schools in this country will ultimately be to make a profit. That's not how we want our schools to be run.

"They should be run for the benefit of the children and not for the benefit of shareholders and company profits."

However, Edison points to an independent evaluation of its work which shows pupils in its schools improving at a faster rate than in other district schools. The evaluation, by the Rand Corporation, praised in particular its efforts to improve the performance of Afro-Caribbean youngsters - who make up the majority of pupils in many US schools.

Edison has begun to work with UK schools - starting school improvement partnerships with 40 schools in Essex, Enfield, Bromley and Southwark. It provides them with leadership training and curriculum development.