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19 July 1999

How to waste a large sum of money

A council gets £250,000 to spend on schools. For books? Teachers? Er, no. By Francis Beckett

By Francis Beckett

More than £250,000 is being pumped into education in Islington, one of the poorest boroughs in London. That is the good news, and you read it here first. The bad news is that a management consultancy, PricewaterhouseCoopers, is getting the lot (and, according to some sources, has recently negotiated a large increase). In return, the consultants will show the council how to hand its education functions over to a private company. Worse, the council is spending thousands, and probably tens of thousands of pounds more – no one knows exactly how much – in staff time to help the consultancy to do its work.

It’s not really the council’s fault. The chief inspector of schools, Chris Woodhead, sent his inspectors in, and they laid about the borough’s schools with their usual joyous abandon. Their report was published the same day as a government report saying the council must contract out all, or most, of its services to the private sector. Council officers and elected members seethed. They thought Woodhead’s report was inaccurate in detail and unfair in general and that the timing of the two reports, so that they came out together, amounted to cynical news manipulation.

They suspect they will go on getting the blame for everything, just as though they were in charge. They wonder whether, when the decision to close a primary school has to be taken, the contractor will take it while the councillors will still have to defend it before angry parents.

But they know that if they are not careful, David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education, will take away all control from them, instead of just most of it. So they nail grins to their faces and tell everyone who will listen how grateful they are to “that nice Mr Woodhead” for explaining so forthrightly what a mess they have made of everything, and to “that wise Mr Blunkett” for sending private companies in to do the job properly. They are like the vulture in the old rhyme:

So when the lion steals his food
And kicks him from behind
He smiles, of course, but oh the rude
Remarks that cross his mind.

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There was some highly secret horse trading. Blunkett told Islington he was going to send in PricewaterhouseCoopers at government expense. But, fearing that it would lose any influence over the way education services are provided in the borough, Islington suggested that the consultancy should be hired jointly. It offered to pay a quarter of the cost, and so it was agreed.

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For £250,000, the consultants will not provide anything at all of direct use to Islington schools, still less to the children. They will simply prepare for another company to come in and run the services. Already there is a shortlist of ten, including Capita, which handled the nursery vouchers scheme for the Conservative government, and the educational charity CFBT.

I asked some head-teachers and education experts what they would do with Islington education if they had £250,000 to spend on it. None of them mentioned bringing in a management consultancy, and when I told them what the money was actually going on, they were horrified.

Professor Kathryn Riley, director of the Centre for Educational Management at the Roehampton Institute, chose reading recovery. This is a means of identifying children who have reading problems at the age of six and providing them with one-to-one teaching each day from a specially trained teacher. It works better than anything else yet discovered, but it is labour-intensive and therefore very expensive.

Islington schools had a reading recovery scheme until 1997, but it proved too expensive to maintain. £250,000 would provide a full reading recovery service for all the borough’s 40 primary schools for two years. Every six-year-old child who needed it would be able to go into a reading recovery programme.

Geoffrey Fallows, head-teacher of one of London’s most successful comprehensive schools, Camden School for Girls, in the neighbouring borough to Islington, chose books. Most London schools have a book shortage, he says. At his school, it was so bad that, four years ago, they launched an appeal for parents to raise money to buy books. They raised £13,500. It was almost enough. £15,000 would have equipped the school with all the textbooks it needed.

So, assuming that all nine Islington secondary schools have the same shortages as Camden School for Girls, you could do the job with £135,000.

“That would leave enough to do the same for most of the primaries as well,” said Fallows with a satisfied sigh, before he put the phone down and returned to the real world.

The Liberal Democrat education spokesman, Don Foster, went for carpets. “The quality of the buildings in some Islington schools is so awful that it implies there is no concern for pupils,” he said.

If there was any money left – and he reckons there would not be much – he would spend it on teachers, to improve the teacher-pupil ratio.

Margaret Morrissey, of the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations, was the only person who mentioned management, but she wanted the money to go directly into better school management. “In education you have to have a vision,” she said.

Yes, indeed. But it doesn’t seem likely to come from a firm of management consultants.