Rival firms fight for failing school

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The Independent Online
A HI-TECH "millennium school" specialising in business, arts or sport is being proposed by bidders hoping to take over the first state school to be put out to tender.

Private companies will outline their aspirations for a failing comprehensive school at Guildford, Surrey, in submissions to be put to parents today.

The contractors hope to take over King's Manor School next year under ground-breaking council plans to close the comprehensive and reopen it under private management.

Three companies are in the running: Nord Anglia, a consultancy that runs a string of private schools, careers services and teacher-supply agencies; CFBT, a not-for-profit consultancy that is a major supplier of school inspectors; and 3E's Enterprises, a company set up by Kingshurst City Technology College in Solihull, West Midlands. The most controversial bidder, the American-inspired Education Partnership, has pulled out of the race, claiming English law would give it too little freedom to reform the school.

None of the bidders is proposing to inject large amounts of extra money, but all are promising to turn the comprehensive into a first-class school. The winner will reopen the school next autumn. Private contractors will hire staff and appoint governors, and will be able to earn bonuses if examination targets are met.

Nord Anglia, run by the multi-millionaire entrepreneur Kevin McNeany, proposes "The Guildford Millennium School" with a strong bias towards industry. The company's proposal says: "The new school will be close to business and will concentrate on giving all its pupils the skills that will lead to quality employment." Staff are offered an "exciting but perhaps a little unsettling" time.

CFBT is promising a school to "develop a leading-edge specialism in the performing arts, drama or sporting arena", but concentrating on key skills, discipline and better teaching. The company's outline says: "We are not coming to you with tempting bags of extra cash. CFBT does not believe the problems of the King's Manor school are primarily caused by the shortage of money."

The 3E's bid promises to plough any profits from the King's Manor contract back into the school and the Kings-hurst CTC. The company wants an arts college, with "students" rather than pupils, offering education to people of all ages.

King's Manor, which has places for 900 pupils but is only half full, slumped to the bottom of the Surrey league table. Only 20 per cent of pupils gained five or more good GCSEs this year.

Dr Andrew Povey, chairman of Surrey County Council's education committee, said: "They are looking at making the school something different, using technology and lengthening the day - these are all the sorts of things which are required."

But Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, accused the authority of a "woeful abandonment" of its responsibility. "I have seen worse situations, and worse schools, turned round with the help of the local authority."

Parents said their fears had been allayed by meetings with the bidders. Ben Cartwright, chairman of the King's Manor School Action Group, said: "There is a sense of optimism now that we are going to end up with a school that the community can be proud of."