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Staff pay heavy price for privatisation

The school reform movement marks the struggle to move from an industrial to a post-industrial system of schooling which will depend increasingly on privatised educational services.

Professor Joseph Murphy of Vanderbilt University has reached this conclusion after examining almost 100 books, government reports and academic papers on privatisation schemes in North America and Europe.

"The literature leads me to conclude that ... the moorings that have supported us for the past century are likely to give way - many would say are giving way - to new (or revisited) social, economic, and political perspectives," Professor Murphy told the AERA conference. "In many ways the liberal democratic state is being dismantled and the foundations for a new era are being poured. "

The main pressures behind the privatisation trend are discontent with the level and quality of public provision of goods and services and a changing political context. There had been a "general political movement toward the right" in both the United States and Britain and electorates had come to adopt the conservative view of government as "an economic black hole".

Professor Murphy, the association's vice-president, emphasised that there were many forms of privatisation in education: load-shedding (for example, scrapping school transport services), asset sales, encouraging volunteers to provide instruction, voucher schemes, tax concessions that persuade corporations to donate materials to schools, charging for curricular activities, and buying in teaching and management services from outside sources.

Handing public services over to private firms who were forced to compete usually saved taxpayers between 15 and 40 per cent, Professor Murphy said. The opportunities for cost-savings in education were therefore enormous.

But, as a number of analysts had pointed out, savings were not necessarily synonymous with enhanced efficiency. Lower costs could result from either greater efficiency or deteriorating quality; from greater productivity or from paying lower wages and imposing poorer working conditions on staff.

"There is reason to believe at a minimum that the cost-savings associated with contracting out are due, at least in part, to more efficient ways of doing business," Professor Murphy said. "The likely effect of contracting out on educational quality remains an open question but it continues to look like an idea worth examining - and it is likely to cost less, be somewhat more efficient and, at least, quality neutral."

Many potential gains for taxpayers are, however, likely to be at the expense of school employees. Studies in the United States have shown that total compensation for public school teachers averages 25 per cent more than the cost of employing teachers in private schools.

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