The piece below appears in this week's edition of Tribune.
Stoke-on-Trent City Council, which was forced by the government to sub-contract its children's services to the private firm Serco, is looking to close all its secondary schools as part of a £200m reorganisation programme. The plans have been drawn up by Serco and are backed by Mark Meredith, the elected Mayor of the City and a keen supporter of the government’s policies on both Trust schools and academies. Indeed in a recent letter to the city’s school headteachers and chair of Governors Mr Meredith uses Lord Adonis type language when he describes the proposals as an attempt to ‘escape the straightjacket of the traditional comprehensive school and embrace the idea of genuinely independent non-fee paying state schools. It is to break down the barriers to new providers, to schools associating with outside sponsors, to the ability to start and expand schools; and to give parental choice its proper place.’
On its corporate website Serco proclaims that it is into ‘place shaping of communities’ (whatever that means), and that it is committed to ‘working with and across the whole local community to make citizens' lives better.’ It would appear that to date the ‘with’ part of that commitment has not been uppermost in its relations with the citizens of Stoke-on-Trent. Serco’s proposals have ignited an almighty row across the city. The local Labour party is opposed to the plans, as are the city’s three Labour MPs, as are the headteachers and teaching unions and as are the majority of parents and pupils. What angers and unites them is not whether there is a need for a debate about how the future education provision in the city should be shaped but rather the manner in which the debate and consultation has been handled by Serco and by the elected Mayor.
Appointed to run the city’s Children’s services in April 2007 on a three year contract, Serco produce a radical plan for the closure of all of the city’s secondary schools only two months later. No consultation with MPs or councillors about what the plans might look like, no opportunity for headteachers or the teaching unions to articulate an alternative vision, no attempt at a collegiate, collaborative approach that would set out how, together, the key stakeholders might meet the challenge of providing education excellence and equity for the young people of Stoke.
So if we have to have private contractors involved in the running of our education services at a local level we must surely insist that they are able to demonstrate that when being paid out of the public purse to provide a public service they promote community cohesion rather than create community discord.