Essex school seals deal with US firm

A STRUGGLING Essex school has become the first in Britain to clinch a contract with a controversial American company that aims to make profits out of state education.

A STRUGGLING Essex school has become the first in Britain to clinch a contract with a controversial American company that aims to make profits out of state education.

Edison Schools has been asked to provide curriculum development, home-school partnerships and teacher training to Colbayns High School in Clacton.

The company is in negotiations with Essex County Council to provide services to another four schools as part of a drive for "continuous improvement" by both pupils and teachers.

Education watchdog Ofsted has said Colbayns has "serious weaknesses", which puts it only one level above being an officially failing school.

The school said it had always tried to be innovative and its link-up with Edison, expected to last at least two years, continued that tradition.

Nick Pavitt, Colbayn's headteacher, said: "We are excited about using the Edison programme to change the ways in which the school is organised so as to substantially improve learning outcomes for our students.

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"We are very pleased that the LEA has given us the opportunity to be part of this exciting venture."

His first deputy headteacher William Barnard said Edison may second some of its US-based staff to the school, but Colbayns would remain in charge of the scheme and no teachers would be transferred to the company's control.

Edison would be working with 12 to14-year-olds at the 1,700-pupil comprehensive, who would be reorganised into three "learning clusters" of about 90 pupils each, Mr Barnard said.

Students will take computerised English, maths and "social development" tests twice a term, which will be electronically marked to give "instant feedback to the pupil, teacher and school management", according to Edison.

Teachers will meet on a daily basis to identify where pupils are doing well and where they need extra help in a "combined pastoral and academic approach".

Iris Pummell, Essex County Council's cabinet member for children's services and schools, said: "We are committed to partnering with Edison to deliver the most powerful possible school improvement programme for Essex schools.

"A substantial number of schools across Essex have expressed an interest in this highly innovative approach, and we expect more schools to become involved in the coming years."

But Jerry Glazier, general secretary of the Essex National Union of Teachers, last night said he was opposed in principle to any firm making a profit out of running publicly funded schools.

He said: "In America, they're more used to big inner-city schools with a large proportion of Hispanic and African-American pupils. There's bound to be a cultural difference to what they're going to find in Essex – it's all very unsatisfactory and inappropriate."

Like many secondary schools in Essex, Colbayns had suffered in this year's funding crisis, but the Edison contract, estimated to be around £60,000, is coming from the Government's "leadership incentive grant"' scheme, aimed at helping struggling schools to improve.

Jim Howland, chief executive officer of Edison's Educational Service Group, said: "We are delighted to launch our programme this autumn in Essex, and look forward to continued partnering with both the LEA and a number of innovative Essex schools to help strengthen teaching and learning and to accelerate student attainment."

Edison Schools was founded in 1992 and its website said it now serves 110,000 pupils in 20 US states, including those in "charter schools", which are free to pupils but are run by the company, which is paid out of public funds.

But the company has been dogged by opponents of privatised education across the US and at least one academic study has questioned the firm's claim to have fostered above-average improvements in pupil achievement at its charter schools.

The firm has yet to make a profit and was recently forced to issue a denial that it had defaulted on loan debts. Last year US stock market watchdog the Securities and Exchange Commission ruled Edison overstated its income by including cash that had to be used to pay teachers' salaries, and other costs associated with running schools on behalf of its clients.

Earlier this week, Edison announced it was backing a move to take the company private again via a merger with a company formed by its founder and chief executive officer, Chris Whittle.

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