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Saturday, 2 September, 2000, 00:09 GMT 01:09 UK
Islington schools: is privatisation working?
Islginton Education Service sign
Islington was the first LEA in the UK to be "privatised"
Last year, the London Borough of Islington contracted out its schools services following a damning inspection report.

The running of these services was taken over by a private company - Cambridge Education Associates (CEA).

The BBC's Nick Robinson reports on whether the private sector can succeed where the public sector failed in Islington LEA.

The Blairs led the way when they shunned their local secondary schools in Islington and sent their eldest son to a school in west London.

Like many middle-class parents in this north London borough they had no faith in its secondary education.

Soon after the election, Labour gave Chris Woodhead, Chief Inspector of Schools in England, extended powers to "name and shame" failing local education authorities.

Ofsted's conclusion was that Islington was "incapable of self-improvement", which meant "we've tried everything else and failed, so time to call in the private sector".

teacher writing on board in class
The Blairs shunned Islington schools

Over the past twelve months, I have been filming the Islington "privatisation" experiment with a BBC team.

My opening question was the same asked by most parents - why do schools here do so badly?

The answers are many and complex, but all who investigated it agree on one root cause - a failure of political leadership, a problem which privatising the education service was supposed to help solve.

In April this year, private sector company CEA was appointed to take over Islington's entire education service, the first privatisation of an entire LEA.

CEA's powers are quite limited - it cannot increase teachers' pay or change the curriculum in any detail.

It cannot even paint the schools since school buildings remain under the council's control. What it can do is take on the responsibility for managerial issues and "schools support".

'Too early to judge'

CEA argues that by taking on tasks such as answering the phone and replying to letters more quickly, it allows head teachers to get on with their real jobs.

As for schools support, it favours modest practical changes, such as a programme to tackle teacher shortages.

What has happened in Islington is really a management take-over. Most of the staff remain as before, but three key officers have been "let go" - at a cost of 250,000 - and replaced by a new team.

Cynics say it is simply new faces and a new logo. CEA says it is bringing new leadership and a new direction.

It is too early to judge the impact of privatisation, but let us hope CEA are right.

Nick Robinson is chief political correspondent for BBC News 24.

His report - Education, Education, Privatisation - can be seen on Saturday, 2 September, on BBC Two at 1845 BST.

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