From the Editor - Capitalists are coming to a school near you

10th May 2013 at 01:00

The prospect of the private sector having anything to do with education appals many. The sector is often regarded a bit like those raffish and vulgar uncles who turn up at family weddings to leer at the bridesmaids and bore the pants off everyone with tales of barely believable success.

But the reality is that in many developing countries the private sector is plugging the gaps that the state cannot or will not fill (see pages 24-28). Education is simply too expensive for poorer countries to provide for all their citizens. And as aid from richer countries has declined, so they have turned to private providers.

The wealthy have always gone private. What's different now is that huge numbers of poor children in Ghana, Nigeria, Pakistan, Kenya and India attend schools run as businesses. Some 70 per cent of Delhi's schoolchildren are enrolled in one.

This private expansion is usually the result of official failure. State schools in many of these countries are inert, corrupt and devoid of teachers, who pocket their wages but neglect to turn up. The poor have given up on these schools and, despite their poverty, will pay for a private education that responds to their needs.

Even naysayers must accept that an education provided privately is better than no education at all.

But do we really want or need that kind of private sector involvement outside the developing world? The answer appears to be yes. Wealthy countries, too, are turning to the private sector. Some have encouraged private school chains. Many more are buying off-the-shelf training, assessment, inspection and curriculum packages. Tens of thousands of students in China now sit the equivalent of the imported and very British A-level qualification. Swedish and US providers have dipped their toes into the UK schools market.

Within four years, 20 per cent of all education expenditure globally will be spent on for-profit services. Education is now global - and increasingly it is business.

The not-for-profit kind is generally more palatable than the for-profit variety. But such sniffiness is more a matter of taste than reason. What on earth is the difference for the student and school between a qualification provided by not-for-profit AQA and one set by for-profit Pearson? Are teachers who spent many years in state systems suddenly less good simply because they now work for employers who turn a profit?

There are obvious risks. Unregulated providers will poach the best teachers and the most promising students if governments do not set the rules, monitor and evaluate. And it would be ludicrous if "state" became a synonym for "bad" and "private" for "good". The quality of provision is what counts, not its derivation.

Yet it's easy to see why many countries welcome the private sector's "innate agility", or why lessons learned abroad will be imported back home, or why the private sector will innovate where the state fears to tread. Like it or not, the private sector will influence a school somewhere near you sometime soon. Is that really so bad?

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