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WORK LIFE - CHRISTMAS CHEER

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It is school carol service and Christmas panto time at my younger son's school. The other son, newly embarked on A-...
It is school carol service and Christmas panto time at my younger son's school. The other son, newly embarked on A-levels, appears to have no 'value added' festivities to offer his guiltily grateful parents. So with one more evening on hard school chairs down, primary school league tables hitting the headlines and high drama over tuition fees, it must be time to ponder education.

And if it is time to ponder the e-word, it must be Tower Hamlets LBC. And not just because Wellington Primary there has hit the headlines as the 'most improved' school in the country. That story has rightly been well-trumpeted and is testament to the efforts of a far-sighted head, classroom assistants, teachers, parents and no doubt the children themselves. But speaking at a seminar on the new political economy of the public sphere recently, I was forced to start with a different tale of Tower Hamlets education - the collapse of the private finance initiative scheme covering 27 schools when the contractor Ballast went broke.

The picture painted by the Unison branch secretary on the site could not have been less like the shiny happy vision of Wellington painted in the Guardian. Ballast defaulted on the school renovation contract leaving some playgrounds looking like building sites, cranes in situ, mud and safety hazards everywhere. Meanwhile children were in danger of being air-lifted out in portacabins being reclaimed by a sub-contractor and PFI chaos reigned.

In the middle of this was a typical Unison shop steward tending grazed PFI knees. Let's call her Josie - a teaching assistant, living in the Poplar regeneration area and fighting to get a good local Unison remodelling deal for teaching assistants in her own school. Josie is the 'new political economy of the public sphere' personified. An undervalued, low-paid female worker, under pressure to become an 'active citizen' on the estate she lives on and surrounded in the workplace by the fallout from yet another privatisation failure.

The list in education is grow ing. Atkins pulled out of its £150m contract with Southwark LBC. Amey sold all its stakes in billions of pounds worth of education PFI contracts when its share price collapsed, private sector saviours Serco and CEA have faced recent fines for failure to meet targets in Bradford and Islington, and so it goes. Meanwhile new Department for Education & Skills' guidelines on PFI talk about speeding up 'the transformation of the school estate' using criteria to prove 'the project will help transform educational attainment'. Tell that to Josie and the Wellington school team. As ever, it is the staff who make the difference. I will be raising my first glass of Christmas cheer to them.

Heather Wakefield

Head of local government, Unison

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