From the Editor - How schools are run, not who does it, is what counts

Gerard Kelly

Michael Gove is a tease. During his testimony to the Leveson inquiry he let slip that he was "open-minded" about schools being run for profit (see pages 8-9). "Open-minded" as in Paris Hilton is open-minded about hanging out with loud, rich people. Or Roy Hodgson is open-minded about England's players scoring goals.

In the week that two teaching unions committed themselves to mindless militancy and launched a campaign against, well, nobody is quite sure against what but against stuff, the Tories have also reverted to type and come out in favour of money. And about time, too.

Conservatives who believe in profits are far more credible than ones who go gooey over green issues and participate in Eurovision phone-ins. You know where you are with Tories who shoot small animals, avoid salads and instinctively champion the profit motive.

Alas, when it comes to allowing private providers to run schools for profit, the public and the profession are not so "open-minded". Many instinctively recoil at the thought of allowing capitalists to make a buck from educating pupils. It's acceptable to squeeze profits out of children by selling them clothes they don't need, toys they don't want and junk food they would be better off without. But it's taboo to provide them with a good education and make a profit in the process.

Opponents believe that a public good like education cannot be provided by organisations whose motivation is profit. But that overlooks two things. First, that in the long run not many private outfits make money by neglecting the needs of the client. And second, "public" organisations do not necessarily have the public's interests at heart. In India and Africa, for instance, for-profit schools provide a good education for poor children at minimum cost because state provision is abysmal and designed to serve the needs of government appointees, not those of pupils.

Private providers can deliver a public good. They already do so in education here. They build, equip and service schools for a profit and the sky hasn't fallen in. So why shouldn't they be allowed to run them, too? Taxpayers don't object to money "going out of the system" if the system runs more smoothly as a result.

And there's the rub. The record of private providers running public services is not exactly spotless. Privately run state nursing homes have been known to let patients rot; private security firms have on occasion allowed criminals to escape. But scandal and mishap are hardly unknown in the state sector either. They happen when organisations are not properly held to account. They are not an inevitable consequence of ownership.

Would for-profit schools deliver a better education than non-profit ones? Not necessarily. Proponents and critics can call on conflicting studies to bolster their arguments but it is hard to see why either should be intrinsically better or worse.

How a school is run is more important than who owns it. But for-profit chains would provide capacity when money is tight. And anyway, everybody would secretly welcome them. The Right could admit to a love that dare not speak its name; the Left would be delighted that its suspicions about the evil Tories' privatising agenda had been vindicated.

So come on, Mr Gove. Make everyone happy. Stop being coy. Allow for-profit providers to run schools. You know it makes cents.

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Gerard Kelly

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