Labour invites private firms to take over schools

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Private companies will be invited by the Government to run failing schools. Judith Judd, Education Editor, hears a Labour education guru spell out radical proposals.

Professor Michael Barber said yesterday that dozens of companies had expressed an interest in playing a leading role in running new education action zones. The zones will be test beds for five year experiments in areas where schools are performing poorly.

In most places local authorities will take the leading role in running action zones, in partnership with community and voluntary groups, but the Government wants private enterprise to run some. The letter inviting bids makes it clear that ministers expect a company to run one of the first five which will begin in September. The rest will start next year.

Professor Barber, a senior government education adviser, told the North of England Education Conference in Bradford that the interested companies included household names, multi-national corporations, banking, insurance and manufacturing companies as well as private firms already involved in education such as Nord Anglia, Capita, and the Centre for British Teachers. He denied that schools were being privatised. Firms would be able to make a profit, but he did not expect them to do so

Twenty-five action zones of around 20 schools each will get pounds 50,000 a year each plus the same amount from private sources.

Graham Lane, chairman of the Education Committee of the Local Government Association said: "These proposals are nonsensical. Business is not accountable to anyone and government wants it to be responsible for running public services where it has no expertise and no understanding of what is involved."

Stephen Dorrell, the Conservative's Education Spokesman, told the conference that he welcomed the new zones, which took the last Government's proposals for intervening in failing schools a stage further.

But local authority leaders predicted that the proposals could lead to the privatisation of education and the end of local democracy. They have asked for an urgent meeting with the Prime Minister.

Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the National Assocaiton of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers Union, said: "The Government should be very careful before giving private companies a free rein to run the proposed education action zones. The American experience has been very mixed where some companies out to make a quick buck have failed to delivery on the promises made."

Professor Barber said that Procter & Gamble had successfully reformed school management in the United States by cutting out more than half of the bureacracy.

Education action zones will be able to opt out of the national curriculum and rewrite teachers contracts. School governors will be expected to give up most of their powers to them.

Professor Barber said: "Those who lead education action zones will be helping to invent the future."