Big firms balk at running schools

9th January 1998 at 00:00
A silly idea or a nice little earner? Business is divided on the benefits of running education action zones.

Multinational household names - the kind of companies the Government says are keen to get involved - mostly expressed bemusement. Even Virgin, involved in everything from cola and vodka to pensions and trains, said it was not interested.

As burger giant McDonald's said: "It's very hard to see how we could do it or what exactly we would get out of it. It's just not our area of expertise. "

Firms which found themselves unexpectedly linked with running zones expressed barely-suppressed irritation.

Sugar manufacturer Tate and Lyle in East London said: "We do have a very active community education support programme, but it doesn't extend to actually running schools and it's not likely to."

Although the Government says interest has been expressed by manufacturing, commerce, insurance and information technology firms, the most likely contenders are those whose business is either education or management itself.

Capita, which administered nursery vouchers and provides a host of other services including school management software, has had early talks with ministers. Accountancy firm Arthur Andersen - worldwide revenue Pounds 11 billion - is interested if it can turn a profit.

Graham Walker, its head of government services, said: "Everyone will want to earn a reasonable margin." The private sector could bring a fresher approach than local authorities and the truly scarce resource was likely to prove to be headteachers with the right experience.

For firms already providing educational services like teacher supply, zones could prove a breakthrough. They want local education authority powers cut and more cash directed to schools - which could then buy their services. This is their chance to prove themselves.

Nord Anglia founder Kevin McNeany, who has made Pounds 2 million in the past nine months, said he was keen to win contracts and claimed teachers were likely to earn more rather than less.

Neil McIntosh, chief executive of the Centre for British Teachers, also voiced interest - but not in forming a privatised local education authority.

He urged the Government to put money straight into a bottom-up approach, with money going straight to schools and CfBT would work with them to provide what they needed and wanted.

They may find a challenge from more specialist education firms. Software manufacturer Research Machines fears it might have to get involved to hold its position in the market.

Head of corporate affairs Phil Hemmings said it made more sense for his firm to act as a partner offering IT support than to run schools. "But we need to think hard about it," he said.

"If the Government wants the private sector involved, we are better qualified than many. We see our business as making education work and it's a logical extension from doing that in one area to doing it generally."

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