In Britain, a move toward privatizing public schools

Officials hope market forces can boost low performance

For Andrew Povey, what's happening at King's Manor secondary school is one of the most exciting developments in British education since World War II.

In a first for Britain, King's Manor is being put in the hands of a commercial operator. Next year, 3 E's Enterprises, a private group, will take over administration of a public school not long ago branded one of the country's worst.

"At long last, pupils and parents should ... benefit from a new teaching regime," says Dr. Povey, chairman of the local education authority (LEA) for the county of Surrey, near London, where King's Manor is located. "I expect it to be the first of many troubled schools to take the same road to recovery."

It's a bold experiment in a nation where government control of schools is a given - and where the Labour Party of Prime Minister Tony Blair has been a traditional foe of private education. But faced with too many low-performing schools, Mr. Blair is backing efforts to bring market forces to education in hopes of raising academic achievement and stemming disciplinary problems.

Following a US precedent, the initiative will allow such groups to appoint their own staff and make curriculum decisions. If it succeeds, more schools may join in.

"I would have no problem if thousands of other schools followed the King's Manor example," says Estelle Morris, a junior minister in the education department. "We have made it crystal clear to LEAs that if there are other people who can provide a service for a school, which is in the best interests of that school, then we shall allow them to do so."

Currently, Britain's 25,000 state schools are administered by 182 separate LEAs, whose commitment and professional ability vary widely. But in January, Education Secretary David Blunkett announced a policy of "modernization and reform" that would loosen the grip of underperforming LEAs and attract private groups interested in running what Mr. Blunkett called "education rescue services."

3 E's, the group taking over King's Manor, is the commercial arm of a state-funded technology college in Solihull, in England's West Midlands. Under the deal, Surrey County will spend up to 1 million of central-government money refurbishing the school, and pay 3 E's a management fee until it opens. After that, payments will be performance-related.

Lifting the school back on the road to academic achievement will not be easy. King's Manor, in the city of Guildford, lies in an economically and socially depressed area. Its red-brick buildings are surrounded by drab blocks of apartments, most in a state of disrepair. Local unemployment and crime rates are high.

Inside the school gates, headmaster Greg Gardner, who set out seven years ago to try to rescue King's Manor from the educational doldrums - but still within the old government system - admits to having fought a losing battle.

The school was built to take 900 pupils, but today, because of its poor academic record, the roll is down to less than 400.

Only 20 percent of Mr. Gardner's students pass government-approved examinations, against a national average of about 46 percent. The school has a history of violence and truancy.

Stanley Goodchild, 3 E's managing director, says his organization will adopt a five-year plan. It will rebrand the school an arts and technology college, appoint a new head, staff, and governing body, and offer pupils a wide variety of vocational alternatives. And it will do so with solid support from nearby residents.

Ben Cartwright, chairman of a community-action group that initially opposed handing the school over, now likes what he sees.

"I've been to the technical college 3 E's runs in Solihull and I was very impressed," he says. "If anyone can turn King's Manor around, they can."

Response from teachers' unions has been more mixed. Nigel de Gruchy, leader of the School Masters' and Women Teachers' Union, says Surrey County Council has "woefully abandoned its responsibility." Douglas McAvoy, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, claims Blunkett is "making a leap in the dark."

But David Hart, who heads the National Association of Head Teachers, says the government has adopted a good method for "calling poorly performing LEAs to account."

A leading contender for future school contracts in Britain is the New York-based Edison Project, which runs some 50 US schools for profit. Edison executives say they are keen to operate in Britain - provided they are given several schools to run and are allowed to make money.

Leon Boros, director of Capital Strategies, a fund adviser in London's financial district, forecasts that in coming years many opportunities will open up for "knowledge companies" looking to run state-financed schools.

"The process is being driven by changes in government policy to improve standards and efficiency in the state education sector," he says.

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