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Last Updated: Monday, 10 November, 2003, 14:53 GMT
Concerns over education privatisation
By Kim Catcheside
BBC education correspondent

The Schools Minister, David Miliband, is to meet Bradford's Labour MPs on Tuesday to discuss concerns about the performance of the private company contracted to run the city's schools.

Children walking into school
Results have been improving in Bradford
Serco, known locally as Education Bradford, took over two years ago after the council-run education authority was condemned by school inspectors.

Following a request for help from Serco, the government has just appointed an experienced trouble shooter to head a new school improvement board to work with the privatised authority.

The board will be led by David Mallen, former chief education officer of East Sussex education authority.

He chaired the change management board which turned round the education service in South Tyneside, and acted as interim commissioner for London Challenge - the drive to raise standards in the capital's schools, prior to the appointment of Tim Brighouse.

Serious difficulties

Already this year Education Bradford has had to get its contract changed to downgrade the targets for improving exam and tests results it were supposed to achieve.

I spent a week talking to Bradford's head teachers and those working for Serco in the city. Many expressed deep disquiet about the way the authority was being run.

In particular heads are concerned about what they describe as a lack of support for vulnerable pupils and vulnerable schools.

Recently Education Bradford announced that 45 of its schools were in serious difficulties.

The head teacher of the successful Challenge College, Gareth Dawkins, is head of a group representing Bradford secondary head teachers.

He told me: "Those schools have not been getting the quality of support that they needed and as a result some have slipped and declined still further with tragic consequences."

Smaller teams

Allan Davy, head of Shipley Church of England Primary School, says primary school leaders are experiencing similar difficulties

"We are not seeing the support in schools we hoped we'd get. There's a great shortage of educational psychologists and that's having a knock-on effect on schools."

According to the unions and professional associations, there has been a collapse in the teams of professionals such as education social workers and psychologists who provide specialist help to schools.

When Serco took over the educational psychologist team was 20 strong, now the work is being covered by about 10 full-time posts.

The general secretary of the National Association of Educational Psychologists, Brian Harrison Jennings, lives in neighbouring Huddersfield.

He says there has been a culture clash between his members and the company.

"Serco have destroyed the service ... they've totally misread the public service culture our members here have," he said.

Everyone I spoke to in Bradford agreed that Serco had signed a very tough contract. The targets for improving exam success were described by one insider as ludicrous - and the company promised to deliver this for less money than the old local education authority.


As a result, Gareth Dawkins says, Education Bradford has been dogged by financial problems.

"That does absorb a lot of people's time and energy that might otherwise be better spent addressing the needs of schools."

But Education Bradford rejects these criticisms. It feels problems have already been addressed.

Earlier this year the council agreed to reduce the performance targets and find more money. This year, test and exam results in Bradford rose faster than almost anywhere else - albeit from a very low base.

The head of education for Serco in Bradford, Mark Patterson, is optimistic that improvements will continue. He says the scale of the problem they took on been underestimated.

"The situation was significantly worse than was realised at the time. We are committed to this contract and are in here for the long term.

"We've already achieved successes. Look at our results over the last two years and you'll see we're one of the most improving authorities in the country.

"Exam and test results are up at a faster rate than anywhere else and all this is being delivered for less money than the council was spending before the contract was started."

But it remains to be seen how long Mr Pattison will be left to run things alone.

The Bradford contract is the biggest to have been awarded to a private company and a crucial test of the whole policy of local authority privatisation.

Earlier this year WS Atkins pulled out of a contract to run schools in Southwark in south London.

That experience is the shadow that hangs over Bradford. It would be politically extremely damaging for the government if another deal were to founder.

Instead the Department for Education and Skills seems to have decided to support Serco. The new school improvement board, headed by David Mallon, will give them a vehicle to exercise more control if it's judged to be needed.

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