The firm Gove said he would let run schools causes chaos in Lincolnshire

Janet Downs's picture
When ex-Education Secretary Michael Gove was shadow secretary before the 2010 election, he told Policy Exchange he would allow groups like Serco to run schools.

Since then Serco has been involved with some embarrassing scandals including out-of-hours doctor services in Cornwall and overcharging for offender tagging (Serco is still being paid for equipment being used by the firm which took over Serco’s contract – this could potentially wipe out the fine Serco had to pay).

Now the curse of Serco has hit Lincolnshire. The County Council chose the outsourcing giant to run the county’s financial management system from 1 April. This has caused chaos: thousands of invoices left unpaid; some schools having telephone lines cut off; head teachers threatened by debt-collection agencies and workers paid wrongly.

One school administrator told the Lincolnshire Echo: ‘It's been a complete and utter nightmare and we have no confidence in the system’.

Serco said such a major ‘transition’ involving a new contractor and a new computer system would inevitably throw up ‘issues’. A helpline’s been set up for those in difficulties.

The Council is primarily responsible for this turmoil – it gave the contract to Serco. But Lincolnshire County Council (LCC) has a track record for making dubious decisions. Early in the last Government, LCC advised all its schools to become academies. LCC later had cause to regret this guidance when West Grantham Academies Trust planned to close one of its academies. LCC belatedly realised academization was robbing the Council of its ability to manage school place supply. And when it was discovered the academy trust Priory Federation used school funds inappropriately, one councillor called for more local accountability.

Overcharging the Ministry of Justice; poor service in Cornwall; unpaid bills causing stress for staff, schools and suppliers in Lincolnshire do not sound like the qualities needed to safely run schools.

Outside Lincolnshire, the future’s bright – the future’s ‘Open’.

That’s the premise behind David Price’s book, Open: How we’ll work, live and learn in the future which I reviewed here for Schools Week. Price is enthusiastic about how the internet has transformed the way we live and learn. He is optimistic about the web’s force for good. It encourages collegiality and communication. And he’s right – but there’s a downside which, although acknowledged, is downplayed.

Knowledge is available at the touch of a few keys. But, as I pointed out, information is only as good as the person providing it. Typing a few symptoms into the computer can bring up a range of possible conditions but you still need a trained physician to do tests and suggest treatments. And concerns have been expressed about the veracity of on-line reviews and endorsements. As Ibra Bhatt from Lancaster University points out, web users need a high degree of ‘crap detection’.

That said, we need authors like Price to tell us what is possible. Schools Week asked me to give Open a star rating out of five. I gave it three. But, just as I used to do when I marked GCSE coursework, I now wonder if I’ve been too harsh. Perhaps I should have given it four. The only way to decide is for readers to get the book and decide for themselves.

ADDENDUM 26 June 2015, 15.58

The Times,25 July, (at the bottom of this article, behind paywall) described how Serco has lost a contract to run a New Zealand jail - an organisation, the article said, which was 'out of control'. This failure had nothing to do with 'legacy issues', the oft-used Serco excuse, but 'present mismanagement and understaffing'. The article says Serco's failure is 'totemic in the debate on whether the outsourcing of public sector services to private entities is something we can trust'.
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