Schools threaten council boycott

By Roddy Ashworth and Ted JeoryA GROUP of frustrated headteachers is to turn its back on the county council and purchase key services from the private sector.

By Roddy Ashworth and Ted Jeory

A GROUP of frustrated headteachers is to turn its back on the county council and purchase key services from the private sector.

The move comes after Essex County Council backed out of plans to work with private partner Serco, following extensive consultations with schools that lasted for about 18 months.

The deal would have seen up to 1,500 council employees - all non-teaching staff - transferred into the private sector.

A number of headteachers criticised yesterday the county council for moving away from the proposal, which they said could have brought better value for money for their cash-strapped schools.

More than 31 secondary schools in the county have now expressed in interest in forming a co-operative-style “club” which could purchase goods and services at a discount and share “best practice” policies.

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The group would look at competitive rates for services such as catering, financial advice and ground keeping, and could decide on more cost-effective offers from outside the county council.

But Paul Sztumpf, leader of the Labour group at Essex County Council, warned it would be a “disaster” if schools felt forced to break away.

He said the council could lose valued and experienced staff and added: “I'm very worried about the knock-on effects and people's positions. We need to look at the situation very carefully - we have a responsibility to our staff.”

Nicholas Pavitt, headteacher of Colbayns High School in Clacton, said the council's decision had upset some headteachers.

“The current cash crisis has created a background of discontent, which has fuelled the move to explore other possibilities,” he added.

“Serco is a huge company with a multi-million-pound turnover - there is possibly hope that in the future we may benefit from their extra purchasing power, but my governors will take the final decision once we have more information in the autumn.”

Terry Creissen, principal of Colne Community School in Brightlingsea, said although some of the services currently bought from the county council - such as advice on personnel issues - were excellent, headteachers were now “clutching at straws” to find more cost-effective alternatives.

He added: “It's a fact - the local education authority does not provide value for money.

“With the current funding problems - which I think is the fault of the Government, not the local education authority - there is now a desperate need for heads to look at providing better value and the Serco option is something we need more information on.”

Stephen Castle, cabinet member responsible for communication, defended Essex County Council's decision not go through with the proposed partnership with Serco.

“It was a difficult decision and with all the effort and soul-searching that went into the process, the easier one might have been to go ahead to save embarrassment. But that's not a good reason to take a decision,” he said.