AT FIRST SIGHT it seems bizarre that a civil engineering consultant with Mott MacDonald's design pedigree should be running the Local Education Authority in the north London borough of Islington.
But Mott MacDonald chairman Tim Thirlwell is quick to point out that managing education programmes and departments is nothing new.
'We have been providing educational services for more than 15 years, ' says Thirlwell. 'Our core business is still infrastructure but we are always looking to add to the range of services we provide.'
Motts formed Cambridge Education Consultants in 1983 as a joint venture with Cambridge University 'to promote education, training and human resources'. It has worked in partnership with Cambridge Educational Associates on mainly overseas projects, although since its formation in 1987, CEA has become one of the UK's biggest providers of educational services.
Previous contracts have seen the partnership set up and run schools and education projects in Africa, China and Bangladesh. With the backing of the Overseas Development Institute, the Department for International Development and other overseas government agencies, the joint venture has become a leading overseas education specialist. Mott MacDonald's buyout of CEA last month was the logical formalisation of the partnership.
Islington is the first LEA the partnership has taken on. Education minister Estelle Morris ordered the LEA to bring in private contractors to run its schools last summer after a damning Office for Standards in Education report highlighted a 'catalogue of educational failure' in the London borough. Winning the contract resulted in more than 500 teaching staff joining Motts' payroll.
The new Mott subsidiary Cambridge Education Associates formally took control of the LEA on Monday, although an interim management team from CEA and CEC has been in place since the start of the year.
The seven year, £20M contract is totally removed from engineering - there is no role within the contract to maintain any of the LEA property assets. But Thirlwell maintains that this in no way signals the firm's intention to move away for the construction sector.
'Extending the range of services we provide is vital, ' he explains.
'This includes the project management at the front end as well as the facilities management and maintenance contracts at the other.'
Certainly, the purchase of CEA takes Motts well away from infrastructure. But to win the contract it had to fight off pure management consultants such as Ernst & Young and Arthur Andersen. In a highly competitive environment, winning was clearly no fluke.
And in addition to the Islington contract, CEA and CEC have also recently taken on a DFEE project to run and manage a programme to review the performance of teachers and head teachers in the UK. This £25M contract will last for five years.
'It is all about managing the delivery of a project, ' explains Thirlwell. 'We have a lot of specialist education expertise on board (from CEC) and we can hire in specialist advisers as we need them.' In this way, he maintains, it is very similar to running any construction project.
'Islington is a very good place for us, ' he adds. 'What we like about ILEA is that the people there are looking for change.' The local authority, teaching staff and parents are very receptive to their ideas. 'We need it to be a partnership, ' he says.
Derek Foreman is CEA director of operations and programme director for the Islington contract.
He points out that Motts' experience of taking over public sector organisations was also vital. 'In dealing with the process of transferring more than 500 staff to the new company, Motts was invaluable, ' he explains. In particular, he points to the need to satisfy the conditions of TUPE legislation.
And while it is clear that the skills supplied by Motts will be in management rather than engineering, Foreman is adamant that the engineering background of staff really helps the partnership.
'Engineers are very logical and organised in the way they work, ' he says. 'What impresses me is that they always deliver what they say they will deliver.'
And Thirlwell is clear about what he wants to deliver at Islington. 'It is a tough area but certainly not in the lowest league for LEAs at the moment.
However, in a year's time I want to make sure that all the kids in Islington are smiling about going to school.'