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Keeping mum on the price of charity

Politicians north of the border are strangely silent about private philanthropy, says Michael Russell

It might be thought that the election would have filled the Scottish media with big political players, wooing us with their ideas on education and letting us in on their vision of schoolrooms running with milk and honey.

It might even be thought that most politicians would actively compete to be heard on the subject, given that education is near the top of virtually every voter's shopping list and that we, the people, are still nominally in charge.

That is certainly true south of the border. There, education is a key political battleground, even if the policies all seem vaguely similar and the competition more at the margins than at the philosophical heart of things. But even there, any serious debate about what education is for, and how it can be funded, organised and delivered to the benefit of every child, is curiously muted. Instead, young people are usually called in evidence as problems: causes and effects of the yob culture, with the parties competing as to how harsh they can be with antisocial behaviour orders (Asbos) and the other accoutrements of social control.

Perhaps it is therefore a relief that viewers in Scotland, as the BBC used to put it, have their own programme to watch. Since education is a fully devolved responsibility, our occasional chance to decide on its future is still two years away. Other topics predominate on the Scottish hustings and, while the manifestos of all the parties competing in Scotland have something to say on the topic, it is mostly window-dressing, try-outs and jostling for position. None of it is going to alter anything until after May 2007, no matter what the voters think.

Yet behind this facade, some very important things are happening now. How they play out will determine not just what Scottish education looks like in five or 10 years, but how it performs and what implications it has for taxation and expenditure. The most influential players in Scottish education today, it might be fairly suggested on the evidence of two Scottish Executive press releases last month, are not the minister and his shadows, still less the civil servants. They are not even headteachers or inspectors. They are certainly not children or parents. They are Tom Hunter and Lord Laidlaw, entrepreneurs, multimillionaires and now pathfinders for the private funding of public education.

Lord Laidlaw is the real innovator. While Tom Hunter and his foundation have waxed lyrical for some time about creating a new generation of school leaders, and have already pumped oodles of cash into the idea of enterprise education, it is Laidlaw - a massive donor to the Scottish Tories - who has stumped up pound;40,000 to help Keith Grammar extend vocational education opportunities. He has, in a very real sense, his foot in the door and a massive influence (passive or active) on an actual curriculum, an actual place and actual children.

More such initiatives - though even the first one's success or otherwise is as yet impossible to gauge - are being heralded. In releasing the long list of establishments that have applied to be "schools of ambition", Peter Peacock quite specifically anticipated the likelihood of monies in the programme being augmented by "private philanthropists", as he put it.

Now I am not against private philanthropy. It has built schools and supported young people throughout our country for generations. The school I was educated at, Marr College in Troon, would not have existed but for the generosity of Charles Kerr Marr. The stewardship of the place by the public sector, in the guise of South Ayrshire Council, has, in recent years, fallen far short of the standards that private money originally secured.

But if we, as a nation, are going down the road of encouraging ever closer links between individual charity and individual learning, we need to consciously agree to travel on that journey. We need to understand the type of education it will produce, how that differs from our present expectations and how it fits with the model we want to see and which the nation needs. To put it crudely, we need to know the terms - all the terms - of the deal.

Given the implications of the matter, we might also have a right to expect some philosophical underpinning to be explained to us and to be offered some proof that the full implications have been worked out. But muddled thinking is already in evidence. Virtually simultaneously with the Laidlaw and schools of ambition announcements, the Executive went sabre-rattling on the issue of charitable relief for independent schools. Are we moving towards making our public sector education into a charity, scrabbling for funds from all and sundry, while at the same time withdrawing that privilege from the independent sector? If so, why and what benefits will accrue both nationally and locally? If there is any educational topic with the potential to set an election alight in Scotland, this should be it.

An informed and detailed debate about private funding of public education is essential. This is not just in terms of the vital, but still to most people abstract, issue of public private partnership (PPP) schemes, but in terms of cash being injected into our classrooms by wealthy individuals in order to achieve stated results. But, instead of being contested on the electoral platform, these innovations have been snuck out in press releases and hidden beneath the noises of other battles. The deals are already done.

So what's the betting that in 2007 we will be told that such monies are now essential and that it would be foolish indeed to go backwards, not forwards. In other words, what's the betting that the debate on education two years hence will be as sterile, in terms of the crucial issues, as the one that Scottish voters are not having at the moment?

Michael Russell is a writer and commentator.

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