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Blunkett preaches the P word;Opinion

THERE IS something very interesting going on in the mind of David Blunkett - worth pointing out in the remaining breathing space before the clamour of Holyrood electioneering drowns out what is happening elsewhere.

England's Secretary of State for Education and Employment has undergone a truly remarkable transformation over the past 12 months. A year ago Mr Blunkett hoped that the private sector would give money to education for altruistic reasons (it has declined to do so). At the North of England conference last year, he launched his education action zones. These were to be largely funded by private money, mirroring incidentally earlier Conservative misconceptions over the funding of city technology colleges.

In the past few months education contractors in the private sector - the giant American Edison Project and Nord Anglia, Britain's biggest - have been explaining patiently to Mr Blunkett where he got it wrong. Commercial disciplines and competition will ensure that education is run better under privatisation, but Mr Blunkett needs to address the private sector mind, not just hope for handouts or investment. Meanwhile the chairman of Nord Anglia has been mocking education chiefs who are not prepared to see a state school run for profit.

Mr Blunkett has now accepted that a few basics must be put in place to engage the interest of the private sector. First, a critical mass of schools or even a whole authority is needed. Then there must be reassurance that after three or five years of successful private development the project is not to be handed back.

There must be also be assurances that education money will not be kept back to fund local bureaucracy. Finally there must be acceptance of the reality: successful contractors need clients and plan for profits.

The Secretary of State has been a quick learner. Last month he again addressed the North of England conference with a new message which must rejoice the collective heart of the private sector. When a local authority was failing to perform any of its functions property he would hand the job to someone else. "We are advertising for contractors that are capable of providing an effective service where an existing one is failing. These could include not-for-profit or private service providers, or indeed a neighbouring LEA."

Next day the advertisement read: "The Department for Education and Employment may wish to deploy private sector contractors. Contracts might be for consultancy or they might be . . . for the provision of education services themselves."

In a recent letter Estelle Morris, a junior education minister, said:

"There is no question of a state school being run for profit by a private company." This statement, however, is not quite what it seems. "Schools are run by governing bodies," she explained. "Budgets are under their control and must be spent for the benefit of pupils. This does not rule out buying services from private companies . . . common practice for services like cleaning and catering. Buying educational and management advice from private companies is less common."

In a coded way the minister is surely saying that she means the exact opposite: a school can be run for profit. "We are not", she added, "in the business of ruling out solutions which might help failing schools get back on their feet more quickly."

Who would be in English local authority education management these days? David Blunkett, former council leader, is turning before our eyes and for impeccable, even impregnable, reasons into the most centralising and private sector friendly Education Secretary the UK has ever seen.

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