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21 February 2000

The triumph of the spin machines

More failing schools, more need for private sector help. So the official press releases would have y

By Francis Beckett

It would be quite wrong to suppose that there are no winners in new Labour’s education system. The merciless war of attrition on local education authorities conducted by the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) under Chris Woodhead, aided and abetted by education ministers, has produced several winners. Management consultants, public relations consultants, public affairs consultants (or lobbyists) have prospered mightily. Millions of pounds of public money have been paid to them but they have not bought a single textbook, mended a single school roof, employed a single additional teacher, or contributed anything to anyone’s education. But you can’t have everything.

The latest PR consultancy to benefit was revealed by PR Week, the public relations industry trade magazine, last month. After leaked newspaper reports that Ofsted would declare Leeds “a failing education authority” – leaking is now a classic Ofsted manoeuvre – Leeds City Council had hired Sinclair Mason “to handle the media interest”. The cost? The council has budgeted £20,000.

That’s a fraction of the sum Islington council in north London spent on getting Westminster Strategy to fight Woodhead’s propaganda and lobby the government. Westminster Strategy – whose top executive, Mike Leigh, was once a researcher for David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education and Employment – advised council officials to smile sweetly and say “thank you, sir” and “please, sir”. It did them no good at all. Blunkett sent in management consultants to tell them how to privatise their services, and Islington ratepayers had to meet a substantial proportion of the £260,000 bill. Then he insisted that control of education services be handed to a private company.

Councils hire these consultancies because, when Woodhead does a hatchet job on their education services, he challenges them to a battle for the minds and hearts of both the public and the government. If he wins, they lose control of their education services to private contractors. That is why “spin” is important to both sides.

Leeds is one of three authorities in Yorkshire on which Ofsted has just delivered reports. Along with Rotherham, Leeds was judged by the inspectors to be failing and, therefore, an immediate case for private consultants. The third authority, Sheffield, got a more mixed report. The inspectors noted a wide variation in schools’ performance – which is hardly surprising when Sheffield has long been known as the most socially divided city in England, if not in Europe, and when it has five of the poorest wards in the country. But the inspectors’ broad conclusion was that the authority was improving, and there was no case for bringing in contractors, so long as improvements continued apace.

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The Woodhead spin machine was equal to this small inconvenience. The Sheffield report was put out on the same day – 2 February – as the Leeds and Rotherham reports. The school standards minister, Estelle Morris, simultaneously announced that she would take action over the parlous state of these three authorities. She also announced that she was looking for more consultants “to meet the expected increase in the number of LEA interventions”.

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Then Woodhead and Morris sat back while newspapers reported the discovery of three failing education authorities in Yorkshire. This was quite predictable, and I cannot believe that such sophisticated media operators did not predict it.

What the inspectors’ report actually said about Sheffield was that it had once been a mess; but in the last two years or so, with a new director of education, Jonathan Crossley Holland, it was improving fast, and was quite capable of the necessary further improvements. Several of its services were outstandingly good.

Every journalist knows that the first paragraph of a news story or press release is what matters. It is often the only part anyone reads. Ofsted’s release on Sheffield began: “The Office for Standards in Education has today set Sheffield Local Education Authority a formidable agenda if it is to give adequate support to its schools’ efforts to raise educational attainment.” The second paragraph stated: “Inspectors warn that time is not on Sheffield’s side.” This refers to a sentence in the inspectors’ report that reads: “We believe that the LEA and the council have the capacity to tackle that agenda, but we do not believe that time is on their side.” Only when you get to the fourth paragraph of the press release do you find a grudging acknowledgement that Sheffield is getting better, or that it does anything at all well, though the report itself makes a feature of this.

The press release from the Department for Education and Employment (DfEE) was headed: “Government urges further improvement in Sheffield’s education service”. It explained that the council had “agreed to the appointment of consultants to advise on how to address the problems identified in the Ofsted report”. The reality is that consultants are to work on only four specific areas, for just one month, at Sheffield’s request. In the press release, however, Morris stated: “The consultants will be considering all options for improving services . . .” The phrase “all options” was taken to mean privatising the authority’s work, as Morris must have known it would be. Journalists jumped to the conclusion that this was another failing authority, and the government was once again riding to the rescue with the trusty sword of management consultancy and shield of private enterprise.

The DfEE, at Crossley Holland’s insistence, has agreed to issue another press release putting this right. This will not make the smallest difference to public perceptions. The PR battle was won on 2 February by Woodhead and Morris, before Sheffield even knew it was fighting one.

The inspectors concluded that just one area of Sheffield’s performance was unacceptably low: the underfunding of school buildings. They accepted that the problem was an old one, and the present administration is doing all it can to put it right. How old? Well, there are some in Sheffield who recall that inspectors first identified such a problem in the mid-1980s – when the council leader answered to the name of Blunkett, D.