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Wednesday, 5 September, 2001, 10:20 GMT 11:20 UK
Outside help for failing schools
The education secretary has been stressing that "head teachers run schools", in response to concerns about her plans for greater private sector involvement in state education in England.
The plans are contained in the education White Paper published on Wednesday.
Teachers' unions have been vociferous in their opposition to the idea.
But Estelle Morris said that what she wanted to do was bring in expertise that could help failing schools.
What the White Paper says is that local education authorities will have to ask "external partners" for proposals on how to help a school threatened with closure.
If an LEA rejects the ideas, the education secretary will force it to work with an outside organisation, which could be from the private or voluntary sectors.
"Our purpose in taking these powers is to make sure we can take whatever steps are necessary to tackle schools which persistently fail their pupils," the White Paper says.
But outside partners will not now get a controlling presence on the governing bodies of schools they manage.
Ms Morris said: "I want to use the skills, the talents of everybody, to actually turn them around."
"And quite honestly, if making partnerships with the private sector could help us do that, I think we should."
But she did not think the private sector had all the answers, and many of the partnerships she envisaged would be built with other, good schools and with the voluntary sector.
One possibility is partnerships between the state and independent sectors.
The Independent Schools Council some weeks ago played down the idea that private schools might "take over" state ones.
But it said it would be giving particular attention to the White Paper's various initiatives encouraging partnerships between public and private bodies "to make its full contribution to raising standards throughout the education system".
The leader of the biggest teachers' union, Doug McAvoy of the NUT, said the tone of the White Paper was significantly different from that which had been on the brink of publication in July.
Plans toned down
"The union will continue to oppose any profit being made from the provision of education. Education is for children not for profit," he said.
"The government's determination to push ahead with an expansion of specialist schools will create a multi-tiered, divided secondary system. Preferential funding for some schools will disadvantage others."
His counterpart at the other big teachers' unions, Nigel de Gruchy of the NASUWT, also detected a softening of ministers' attitudes on privatisation.
There is no mention of individual school departments being contracted out, for instance - floated by the School Standards Minister, Stephen Timms, in an interview during the summer.
"We are quite capable of turning round failing schools and improving standards and innovating in the public sector," Mr de Gruchy said.
In the first four years of the Labour government, 778 failing schools had been turned around in that way.
He did not expect the private sector to bring in extra money. In the two cases of partial privatisation so far - both in Surrey - the schools had been given substantial extra funding by the local authority.
In education action zones, where the government had tried to encourage a range of private sector involvement, the response had been "absolutely pitiful", he said.
The Local Government Association's education chairman, Graham Lane, was also against companies taking over failing schools.
"Apart from being deeply undemocratic, it's deeply flawed. What we want is a partnership between local authorities, local people and industry," he said.
"What we want to do is keep out the racketeers and speculators and we certainly don't want to hand over control to the private sector because that's undemocratic."
The leader of the National Association of Head Teachers, David Hart, said he did not like the idea that private companies might win performance bonuses on the back of the efforts of teachers.
But he said the bottom line was that standards would improve only when the government tackled the fundamental problem - the shortage of well-qualified teachers.
This was taken up by the Conservatives' education spokeswoman, Theresa May, who accused ministers of "tinkering around the edges" and not going far enough on private sector involvement or school autonomy.
"Above all this, the White Paper does nothing to address the real problem facing our secondary schools of teacher shortages," she said.
"Even the limited measures in this White Paper are doomed unless the government takes action to solve this crisis. Standards cannot be raised without good teachers."
The Liberal Democrat education spokesman, Phil Willis, said that instead of radical reform the White Paper was "an ill thought-out set of structural changes that will encourage selection, division and social exclusion".
"More specialist and faith schools will, in effect, create a two-tier system whereby half of the nation's children will be barred from receiving additional resources."
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