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Should schools set up companies?

ONCE local education authorities were stripped of their powers, it swiftly became clear that their role was one which needed performing by someone else.

There is a need for some sort of community of schools, which enables them to learn from each other and to share resources. But the political orthodoxy of the day requires that such a community must resemble a Moroccan souk. If money doesn't change hands, and people aren't forced to try to beat each other to the customer, then the services provided can't be worth having.

Hence the latest wheeze from Education Secretary Estelle Morris, which allows schools to form companies in order to sell their services and facilities to other schools.

It is being presented as a means of bringing additional money into those schools which are selling services, but it doesn't offer any additional money. It simply redistributes the money they already have, away from poorer schools (which need to buy in services and facilities) and in the direction of richer schools (which have spare capacity to sell or rent).

In order to grab money from their poorer neighbours, schools are going to have to invest a large amount of their teachers' precious time in setting up companies. All the recent government attempts to impose an entrepreneurial culture on schools require this. Specialist schools, for example, have to raise pound;50,000 from a sponsor before they can get their hands on the government money available.

Convincing company shareholders that bunging pound;50,000 at the local comprehensive benefits the bottom line requires teachers to expend a great deal of time and effort, and to learn a skill which years of classroom experience will not have given them.

For the far more complicated business of setting up companies, much more time will be needed that teachers ought to be allowed to spend on teaching children.

The scheme, though in theory voluntary, will actually be compulsory, just as the specialist schools scheme is really compulsory. I have spoken recently to two headteachers who are busy turning their successful comprehensive schools into specialist schools. They both resent the time that they and their staff have to spend on something they see as irrelevant and ideologically driven, but if they do not do it, they will lose out on government money. Before they know it, neighbouring schools will have grabbed the money and be producing better results, and their schools will be labelled "failing schools".

The compulsion with the new scheme will work slightly differently. There will be one more question in the already long list of questions which schools have to answer when they ask for money for repairs, or staff, or whatever they happen to need. Cash-strapped education authorities will point out that, with a little entrepreneurial drive and an eye for the market, the school has facilities it could market to other schools, and raise the necessary money that way.

You can't create a real market in state education, any more than you can create a real market in the railways, or the National Health Service.

But - the scheme's advocates will say - at least this will force schools into some sort of marketplace, and create an entrepreneurial culture. And I say: what on earth do you want to create an entrepreneurial culture in schools for?

What you want in schools is a learning culture. Of course, some of the pupils will go out into the world and become entrepreneurs. But others will do other things, which require other skills. Some will even become teachers. And the prime skill of a teacher is not the same as that of an entrepreneur. Yet.

Francis Beckett is a journalist and commentator

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