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Thursday, 5 July, 2001, 12:39 GMT 13:39 UK
Alarm over school privatisation ideas
Plans to encourage more private firms to get involved in the running of state schools in England are drawing heavy flak even before they have been officially published.
The government is keen to see outside sponsors - firms or other groups such as churches and charities - take over failing schools or develop partnerships with successful schools.
It has emerged that ministers are proposing to give them a controlling presence on the governing bodies of schools they manage.
And the School Standards Minister, Stephen Timms, has indicated that schools might contract out individual departments - and their staff.
Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers said the idea had to have been lifted "straight out of the Railtrack book of management chaos".
And in the Commons on Thursday, Labour MP Gordon Prentice demanded to know who was responsible for the suggestion.
"As a member of the Labour Party's national policy forum, my question is this: where did this idea come from?" he said during education questions in the Commons.
"It was never discussed in any of the Labour Party's policy forums, it was never discussed last September at the Labour Party's annual conference.
"If we are going to get bizarre suggestions put forward on a regular basis at least the government may honour us by telling us who was responsible for the idea in the first place."
The Education Secretary, Estelle Morris, said there was no question of forcing schools to hand over control of departments.
"What I can foresee is that some headteachers may choose to do that," she said.
"It would be their choice with no instructions from me in terms of the break up of the school or the department. I want to make that exactly clear".
Mr Timms had let slip in an interview with the Financial Times on Wednesday: "A school might conclude that it was helpful if a department was run for a time - or maybe indefinitely - by a contract organisation."
Asked whether teachers could be transferred to private employers, he said: "I have no doubt that there will be examples of that."
Mr de Gruchy said teachers would be "bewildered" by his comments.
"There is simply no credible evidence that handing schools, in whole or in part, over to the private sector, on the same resource basis, leads to better results," he said.
"Indeed, on the contrary, there is a mountain of evidence, often quoted by the government itself, that state schools have improved enormously over the course of the last four years.
"The proposal to contract out a department within a school to be run by a private organisation, strikes me as simply zany."
Alarm over governor proposals
A white paper setting out the details of the government's proposals is due out soon, with a view to legislation being tabled towards the end of the year.
At a meeting earlier this week, officials presented a proposal to the Department for Education and Skills working party on school governors that firms managing state schools should be allowed to take the majority of places on the governing body.
This has alarmed union and education authority representatives.
The general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, Doug McAvoy, said: "This is privatisation by stealth.
"By sidestepping the protection legislation afforded to public service workers whose employment is transferred to the private sector, this move is even more sinister than straightforward privatisation.
"It is alien for teachers to work in an environment where their efforts are directed at maximising profits instead of being wholly directed to the needs of their pupils."
'Error of judgement'
The Local Government Association's education chair, Graham Lane, said the governors plan would take the education system back to the 1820s.
"It is not only dangerous, the thinking behind it is immoral," he said.
The general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, David Hart, who was also at the meeting, said he was not opposed to churches, charities or non-profit organisations which sponsored state schools being allowed a majority on governing bodies.
But handing control to profit-making companies would be a "step too far" and "an error of judgement", he said.
"It would raise real concerns that have been floating around since the election among the public sector unions.
"It needlessly raises hackles at quite the wrong time and is quite unnecessary."
His counterpart at the Secondary Heads Association, John Dunford, said he was very concerned by the idea.
"There have always been a balance of interests including parents, staff and representatives of the local community that they serve.
"Any proposal to give one particular section control over the governing body will mean that all the other constituent interests in the success of a school will be under-represented."
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