The government is not to issue guidance on how local education authorities should handle the contracting out of schools or services despite being pressed to do so by peers, including cross-bencher Lord Dearing, former government education troubleshooter.
Speaking in a debate on Surrey CC's proposal to contract out the management of King's Manor School, Guildford, Lord Dearing said to avoid acrimony between schools within an authority, the basis of funding should be exactly the same as if it had continued under direct control of the LEA. There should be a substantial minority of local people or LEA nominees on the governing body and in any contract there should be provision for its cancellation if there was failure to perform in accordance with its terms. There should always be clear performance criteria against which managers can be held to account.
Liberal Baroness Sharp of Guildford, who initiated the debate, said it was a moot point whether Surrey CC had exhausted all other options and the decision on contracting out was essentially a political one. Having taken it and because the school had an annual budget of about£1.5m the contract fell within EU public tender procedures, which normally deal with roads and bridges. Secondly,county council lawyers wrote to all the school's governors and elected members. These actions effectively blocked any community bid from those closely involved with the school.
In a short time they combined in a church led initiative, Guildford Community Education Trust. It soon had on board a former deputy director of education, two former head teachers, other educationalists, lawyers and accountants, and its bid was submitted, backed with the possibility of more than£5m of charitable funds to be invested in the school.
Because EU procedures were applied weighting was given to the experience of the bidder in the matter being contracted and to the financial viability of the bidder. GCET was told that only past events were considered. Because it had no track record, its bid was not shortlisted
Baroness Sharp asked: 'Are the procedures and criteria used by Surrey CC, which are taken from EU procedures in judging bids, satisfactory, or is there a need to develop separate criteria which give greater weight to community considerations?'
Education minister Lord Hunt of King's Heath said he could not give a government view on proposals for closing and reopening the school because they were now the subject of formal statutory proposals. He could not prejudge the education secretary's decision if there were statutory objections.
The minister said: 'I do not believe at this stage there is a case for issuing general guidance about how LEAs should proceed in such cases, but some principles are very clear from the current law. The secretary of state has already made clear that local authorities and governing bodies who involve the private sector in any respect must bear in mind three principles: first, the law does not allow them to abandon their responsibility to raise standards. They simply cannot hand over the running of a school to the private sector.
'Secondly, the choices that they make about how to carry out that responsibility must be motivated by the best interests of pupils. Thirdly, they must ensure that any expenditure represents best possible value for money. Public accountability demands no less'.
Lord Hunt said EU bidding rules were designed to ensure open and fair tendering, and LEAs were used to applying them. He recognised the difficulties for a local community consortium in developing necessary expertise, but it was possible for an ad hoc group to buy in the services of relevant personnel.
He added the government had always made clear to Surrey LEA that it believed it had proceeded in line with the law.