White Paper: Anger at plan to increase privatisation of schools

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Sweeping powers to allow commercial firms to bid for the contracts to run new and failing schools were proposed by the Government yesterday.

The White Paper on education calls for legislation to compel local authorities to advertise every proposal for new schools so that outsiders could apply to manage them. The reforms would also see tenders invited to take on schools that have failed Ofsted inspections.

While private companies welcomed the prospect of more involvement in the state school system, the proposals prompted an outcry from teachers and local authority leaders. John Dunford, the general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said he was "dismayed by the Government's devotion to... the private sector".

As part of the reforms, voluntary organisations, religious groups or successful existing state schools will be allowed to join the bidding process. The powers are part of a far- reaching set of proposals that include setting up an élite squad of the country's best teachers, who would spread their expertise around two or three schools at a time.

The Government is planning a massive expansion of specialist secondary schools, setting a new target to create 1,500 by 2005, a year earlier than first planned. It also wants to give every secondary school the right to seek specialist status.

The White Paper is seen as integral to Tony Blair's main election pledge to revolutionise educational standards in secondary schools. Ministers have been worried that as many as one in three children slides back in English and maths standards by the end of the first year in secondary school.

"We want to make it possible for schools to establish new partnerships, with public, private and voluntary-sector bodies," the paper said.

Estelle Morris, the Secretary of State for Education and Skills, said yesterday: "Every child, whatever their circumstances, deserves the opportunity that a first-rate education affords – to make the most of themselves. I believe there is expertise within the private sector that we can use to raise standards. However, it is public-sector workers and headteachers who will actually be running our schools."

She was anxious to stress that ministers would adopt a "whatever works" approach when deciding who would get contracts to manage new and failing schools. Bids could come from commercial companies, voluntary organisations, religious groups or schools.

The plans were condemned by teachers and local authority leaders. Graham Lane, the education chairman of the Local Government Association, said: "This is going to hold new building up with bureaucracy."

Nigel de Gruchy, the general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, said: "While I welcome the absence of a proposal to give private firms a 51 per cent stake in governing bodies [as revealed in The Independent], I remain totally unconvinced of the need to involve them in the establishment of new schools."

Commercial firms involved in school management gave a cautious welcome last night. Kevin McNeany, of Nord Anglia, which had a role in improving St George's School in Maida Vale, west London, the school of the murdered headteacher Philip Lawrence, said: "We welcome the White Paper as it is a substantial step towards private-sector involvement in English state schools."

The package also calls for schools to set up "express sets" in each year to fast-track pupils so they can take their examinations early. The best- performing schools will also be given more autonomy from the national curriculum to decide which subjects pupils study from the age of 14 onwards.