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'Do unions believe schools should accept second-rate services simply because they are public sector?'

Leon de Costa, chief executive of Judicium Education, an employment law consultancy, writes:

During last month’s Association of Teachers and Lecturers conference, Mark Baker, the ATL's senior vice-president, stopped short of using the P word.

Maybe he felt it was going a bit too far? I'm talking, of course, about 'parasite'.

Mentioning how the number of private sector companies servicing schools and colleges has trebled since 2011, he made his feelings very clear: “Our schools and colleges are proving to be a lucrative host to those who seek to bleed them dry.”

As a private sector parasite myself, feeding off the rich host that is the UK's schools and colleges, I've heard this kind of talk before. It goes with the territory.

The irony is that, in many cases, I understand why people like Mark feel this way.

I’m the first to admit that, in many cases, the private sector has indeed taken the UK’s schools and colleges for a ride.

There’s no doubt that certain private sector suppliers lure schools in with almost irresistible service propositions, which, on the surface, are cheaper than they were previously getting. In fact, they end up proving far more expensive because the core service is defined very precisely and anything outside this core service is charged at an extortionate rate.

The Metropolitan Police being charged £100 for a light bulb to be changed is an extreme example of this in practice, but this kind of activity happens across the board.

In cases like this, the allegation of bloodsucking is almost certainly true.

But I would argue that it’s naive to dismiss the benefits that private sector supplier competition can offer schools.

Private sector competition, if working properly (and by this I mean where schools and local authorities are prepared to look beyond a miniscule number of large outsourcing companies for their support services), offers real benefits.

It enables schools to select suppliers according to the measure that best meets their priorities, whether quality and depth of service, or price alone (although schools must understand that the ‘cheapest’ service does not necessarily represent the best value for money).

It’s also naive to tar all private sector companies with the same brush.

I will argue to my last breath that private sector suppliers, chosen from an efficient marketplace, can bring real savings and improvements to schools by removing institutional waste and ingrained bad practice.

I’ll give you some examples, mainly in the field of employment relations because they’re easiest to illustrate, but the principle applies across the board.

Many unions, not to mention schools, are under the impression that the timetable of a disciplinary hearing belongs to both the school and union.

As a result, many hearings are delayed and put off because the dates suggested by the school aren’t convenient for the union. Meanwhile, the employee is suspended on full pay.

In reality, the employer should be taking ownership of the process and insisting that unions abide by the timetable set by the school — or suggest an alternative date within five days, as the law states.

What happens in practice, however, which is financially wasteful for schools, is that the unions delay matters for weeks, even months until a date is found that is convenient for them.

Meanwhile, the losers are the employee, who is understandably stressed and concerned as to his or her future, the school, which is paying for a temporary teacher or operating short-staffed, and, most importantly, the quality of education received by the children.

A decent private sector supplier would never allow a situation like this to happen.

Another example of institutional waste is when schools are ‘asked’ to contribute to union funds beyond the contributions required by law.

Schools are pressured into making a contribution for fear that unions will cause trouble. In effect, the union, which has already received its dues from the employees, is getting paid twice. 

Likewise, if a private sector supplier can reduce long-term sick leave – a large problem in schools — by just one month, it will have saved the school thousands of pounds. 

Multiply that by thousands of schools and countless institutional waste is being removed from the system.

In summary, surely what matters is the quality of the service provided, not the ownership?

Is the message the ATL wants to get out there that schools should accept second-rate services simply because they are provided by the public sector? Is that what’s really best for schools, and for the children they seek to educate?

In addition, Mark Baker should ask why schools are increasingly electing to purchase support services from the private, rather than public, sector.

There are some truly excellent public sector suppliers out there, usually run by the local authority. Unfortunately, there are also too many poor ones.

And it’s for this reason that private sector companies shouldn’t be viewed as intrinsically parasitical, but as key partners that can play a role in raising educational standards for all.

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