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Claire Seneviratna asks if privatisation is the answer in the education debate ...
Claire Seneviratna asks if privatisation is the answer in the education debate

Rarely has a white paper stoked as much controversy before it was even published as last week's education paper. Widely anticipated to tout public/private partnerships as the holy grail of improved education services, the predications have formed a catalyst for vigorous debate between interested parties.

So is privatisation imminent? Does the involvement of a private sector company in a state school or an education department really constitute privatisation, or is the government proposing a 'third way'?

Commercial interests in education are not new. They can range from private finance initiatives responsible for school buildings to business-sponsored education action zones and the contracting out of school meal provision.

But as the need for improving standards across the public sector dominates the government's programme, so the methods are diversifying and, crucially, nothing is being ruled out.

When the former education secretary David Blunkett claimed the government would 'set no targets and no limits' to private sector involvement in education, the message was clear only in its ambiguity.

'We want the government to make it explicit that partnerships for delivering education services in no way alter the statutory responsibilities of LEAs,' said a spokeswoman for the Institute for Public Policy Research, which is seeking to play a key role in legitimising the notion of public/private partnerships.

For the worry - albeit it a cartoonish one - is cigar-smoking men in suits will sit in the school office, pocketing wads of cash every time a pupil aces their exams.

Doug McAvoy, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, says: 'The worry is that where private companies secure contracts for managing schools, teachers will be forced to promote the company's interest rather than the children's. Parents and teachers do not want to see children turned into exam-passing fodder.'

He adds: 'Education is far more than exam results, but if profit becomes the dominant factor it could destroy the whole fabric of our system.'

So could that be the case for Abbeylands comprehensive school in Surrey? In May Surrey CC revealed it had awarded the management contract to education consultants Nord Anglia Education, already running education services in Hackney and Waltham Forest LBCs.

After submitting various proposals for public consultation, it was decided the partnership route was the only way to revive the school's flagging applications and, to use the business terminology, to rebrand and remarket.

Under the seven-year contract, Nord Anglia will be paid an undisclosed sum to boost attendance, raise attainment and seek new status as a business and enterprise college in 2002.

But unlike traditional privatisation, responsibility is not abdicated. Surrey CC will continue to provide the school's running costs, its assets will remain in public hands, services cannot be cut and when Nord Anglia's contract expires, it will be up to the council to decide whether or not to renew it.

At the time of the decision, Surrey's education director Dr Paul Gray said: 'From day one our objective was to provide a first-class education for local children. We are very enthusiastic about this ambitious and innovative approach, and we will work hard to ensure its success.'

But here is where the deal becomes somewhat unpalatable for its critics. Much of Nord Anglia's management fee will be performance-related and

the company will make extra profits when academic standards are improved.

'There's a lot of disquiet within the teaching profession that public money - that should be spent on books and equipment - will go into private pockets,' says Mr McAvoy.

Last month Capita, which has taken over the strategic management of education in Leeds City Council and Haringey LBC, announced profits of more than£31m.

But last year, education minister Estelle Morris insisted: 'People need to be paid for what they do. What we want

to avoid are the fears that companies will make decisions to take profits rather than invest in schools.'

However, the debate is not simply about making money from education.

David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, explains: 'We have not arrived at a sensible solution in defining the relationship between the rewards private companies are getting and the hard work required on the ground.

'Nobody has recognised the enormous pressure that is going to be placed upon teachers who will effectively be responsible for delivering the change,' he adds.

Speaking at the Local Government Association's education conference in June, school standards minister Stephen Timms sought to reassure sceptics: 'Let me be clear, we set demanding performance targets in return for the fees we pay providers to do a job for us. And none of the proposals or practice detracts from the head teacher's ability to run the school, nor does it remove the accountability of local authorities for the quality and effectiveness of services.'

The government is at pains to assert the notion that these partnership arrangements are just that and will not degenerate into a crude 'them and us' scenario.

Yet according to the IPPR, the structures of accountability are not clear enough, particularly in the key role of the school governing body.

An IPPR spokeswoman is concerned about the existing arrangements that see a number of company staff sitting on the governing body. She explains: 'There is a danger the governing body, which is supposed to represent the wider community, will simply represent the interests of the provider organisation. Thus potentially weighting its crucial function of appointing the head teacher heavily in the company's favour.'

IPPR recommends the government urgently clarifies the relationship between education departments and school governing bodies and delineates the responsibilities between governors and providers.

Another issue that tends to become lost in the ideological furore is the simple question of whether the arrangements are cost effective. Do public/private partnerships deliver?

Nord Anglia has not been making serious profits for nothing. Its school improvement contract with Adwick secondary school in Doncaster MBC saw the school taken off special measures while St George's secondary school in Westminster was relieved of its special measures tag within a year.

Surrey CC is no stranger to innovative partnership experiments. In 1999, it was the first council to invite a private company to manage a failing school. The contract helped turn King's Manor school in Guildford into the new and highly successful King's College, run by 3Es Enterprises. And in Islington LBC, the government has been swift to trumpet the successes of Cambridge Education Associates.

Mr Timms said: 'Ofsted's re-inspection report on Islington this spring concluded 'the tide had turned'

in the borough and a 'sense of purpose and optimism' had been instilled.'

Some union critics try to argue the preliminary results of this burgeoning trend as far from conclusive.

'There's no evidence to justify an extension of what was an experiment with King's Manor into a nationwide policy,' says Mr McAvoy. 'It's only been a year and that's simply not long enough.'

As for private intervention in education departments, he claims: 'The results have shown a very mixed bag

with no clear result. It would be very difficult to say

the private sector has proven itself to be far better

than councils.'

Therein lies the fear that the white paper will go further than merely suggesting public/private partnerships as an option, to actively facilitate it. John Fowler, deputy head of education, culture and tourism at the Local Government Association, says: 'Our view is that pursuing these initiatives should still be up to the individual authority. As long as the government does not enforce it then it is really only an extension of local government.'

In one corner, the unions and public sector representatives want to see the prerogative lie squarely with the council and used only when a school or department is in serious need. But the government and IPPR want to do away with this notion of 'last resort'.

'We don't want to see the private sector brought in just because the public sector has failed. It should be considered in all cases on the basis that it represents best value,' stresses the IPPR spokeswoman. She claims only being used as a 'rescue solution' will doom projects, as the best companies will not be interested.

It may be fair to say, in the current climate of modernisation, that the public sector is on the defensive.

Jackie Strong, a past president of the Society of Education Officers and chief education officer at Leicestershire CC, says: 'It is worrying the government seems to think the private sector is almost by definition better than the public sector. We do feel an increasing pressure tolook to private companies to 'solve' our problems.'

Many who share this view greeted the news that the government has bought back the private Heart Hospital in London to return it to the NHS with a sense of vindication. That the private sector does not automatically equal excellent management while the public sector is seen as a euphemism for inadequacy.

A lot of the anxiety can partly be attributed to a fear of the unknown. Many of the initiatives are in their infancy and traditionally there have only been two distinct models - nationalisation versus privatisation.

In this new era of partnership it is not yet clear if the vagaries of the stockmarket will affect the education system.

What will happen if a private company contracted to manage a school suddenly sees its profit margins falling or simply loses commercial interest in a project -how can people be sure the end game will not come down to simple economics?

As yet, government reassurance is all there is. What is tangible, however, is the need to improve the standard of our children's education. Judging by the results of the public consultation over the future of Abbeylands school in Surrey, the end result is becoming the deciding factor and methods merely incidental.

Clearly there is much tidying up to do in the area of accountability and regulation to help answer some of the key questions and exorcise some of the more alarmist elements of the debate. But sadly speculators may have a longer wait for any real detail. The education white paper published last week failed to clarify how most of its plans for increased privatisation will work in practice.

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