All hail the men from Merde

15th October 2004 at 01:00
Far too little close scrutiny and publicity have been given to several recent privatisation events in education. No public debate preceded Pearson, a private profit-making company, taking over the examination board Edexcel. Even members of the board of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority were kept in ignorance until it was too late.

The recent award of a five-year, pound;117 million contract to Capita for running the Government's national strategies in primary and secondary schools has been similarly coy. The invitation to tender was published last March in an obscure European journal.

What is worse, we are fed monumental pap about how wonderful such moves have been elsewhere. The bad stories are rarely told, so hardly a murmur greets the latest massive piece of privatisation.

The evidence about private companies running publicly-funded education is actually quite mixed. There are successes and there are scandals. Private in-service provision has often been quite good.

By contrast, in the United States, a number of private companies, given contracts to improve children's performance, were actually found to be teaching them the reading test answers. Our own 19th-century "payment by results" system led to schools falsifying records, as well as to other chicanery.

In profit-making educational enterprise, as in any high stakes assessment system, there are risks. Interested parties exaggerate the success of the programme, and the curriculum narrows, as energy is focused on what is to be measured. Criticism is anaesthetised or muted. Corporate hype obscures truth.

The Office for Standards in Education was a prime example of what can happen when a public service is handed over to private profit-making companies. Some inspectors had to be admonished for flashing their business cards during inspections. ("Pssst. In trouble? You'll be needing a consultant ... ") Others were renowned for using a limited number of ready-made templates, so they could do back-to-back inspections, without having to create an entirely fresh evaluation, and thus make more profit. Occasionally the less vigilant gave the game away by accidentally leaving the name of a previously inspected school in the supposedly new report.

The training of headteachers for threshold assessment, done by private companies, was a dreadful example of training. Many heads spat nails when reporting on Daleks who would not answer questions and simply whacked through their big box of overhead projector transparencies.

It is not difficult to predict what will happen as more and more educational provision is privatised. Forget the imagination for a start: you cannot quantify it so easily, and it costs too much money either to stimulate it or measure its manifestations.

Tests will become more simple to score and there will be a big increase in multiple-choice questions, taken and scored online. Oodles of potential loot there.

Private curriculum "consultants" will scurry around dispensing official straitjackets and gags to primary and secondary teachers.

"Are you happy with the government straitjacket and gag, er, I mean initiative?"

"Mumm gmm thumm mmm."

"I'll put that down as a definite 'yes'''.

Appraisals will be positive, especially if they are largely internal, as happened with Ofsted's recent self-evaluation. Any increase in test scores will be credited to the private company, rather than the efforts of teachers and their pupils.

When Richard Nixon's government began to dish out school performance contracts to private companies in the US, there appeared to be staggering improvements in reading scores. Claims of a one or two grade level improvement within 48 hours of instruction were sometimes made.

In the town of Texarkana, pupils were even offered free radios and rock music. It was only when external evaluation took place that the nature and depth of deception was discovered and the programme was terminated.

Think of the many years that both GCSE and A-level scores have improved without a profiteer in sight. If current privatisation initiatives had been launched 20 years ago, the profiteers would have claimed all the credit.

On the other hand, if scores start to go down, schools will be blamed.

I have heard the Government is secretly planning to go the whole hog. A colossal company to privatise everything, the Massive Educational Reform Development Enterprise, will be established. In fact, the whole educational system will be run by Merde.

The entire multi-billion pound education budget will be advertised for tender in a mainstream journal, like the Albanian Stamp Collectors'

Gazette. Merde will be the only bidder, of course, and even if someone else submits a cheaper tender, there will be a clause requiring bids from companies not called Merde to be put straight through the shredder.

The good news is that this initiative will boost our reputation in Europe.

Ask the French in a couple of years what they know about privatisation in England and they will simply reply "C'est Merde". And who could disagree?

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