Coronavirus leaves Barnet schools contract in doubt at the ‘worst time’

Barnet Unison said it was a “damning example” of how the private sector avoids risks to deliver publ

Barnet Unison said it was a damning example of how the private sector avoids risks to deliver public services. Picture: Simon Allin - Credit: Archant

A schools contract designed to save the council more than £1.8 million a year could be wound up two and a half years early due to coronavirus.

Private contractor Cambridge Education is in talks with Barnet Council over terminating the deal in August. It was due to end in March 2023.

It means the services covered by the contract could come back under the direct control of the council or be run by a trading company set up by the local authority.

Signed in 2015, the deal saw around 145 council staff transfer to Cambridge Education, which is part of the Mott MacDonald Group.

The seven-year contract covered services such as catering, school improvement, school admissions and services for children with special educational needs.

But in April, the contractor notified a “force majeure” – a clause activated in “extraordinary” circumstances when an organisation cannot fulfil its obligations – due to the impact of Covid-19.

John Burgess, branch secretary of trade union Barnet Unison, called the development a “damning example” of how the private sector “doesn’t like taking the risks for delivering public services”.

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“This latest crisis could not come at a worse time,” he said.

“The obvious and most common sense decision is to simply transfer the services back to the council.”

During the past two years, Barnet Council has brought several services that were previously outsourced to private firm Capita back under its direct control.

A spokesperson for Cambridge Education said: “The Covid-19 crisis has brought significant complexities and consequences and may require substantial revisions to the way in which Cambridge Education is able to the deliver education and skills contract.

“Cambridge Education has entered into a conversation with Barnet to explore the future of the partnership.”

A Barnet Council spokesperson said: “We are currently in ongoing discussions with Mott MacDonald about the future of its partnership with the council after the company highlighted the potential impact of current events on the performance of its obligations under the contract. No decision has been made at this point.

“This partnership has proved very successful in providing support services to schools, delivering significant savings to the council and helping schools to continue to offer excellent standards of education.”