Editorial - Why so reticent about schools run for profit?

1st May 2009 at 01:00
The Tories back private providers in other public services. So why not state education?

What is wrong with running a school for profit? The Tories, who have been very macho in planning to seed academies all over the primary sector and less than tolerant when telling Sir Jim Rose where to put his areas of understanding, are curiously meek when it comes to talking about the profit motive in schools. This is odd. The party's inspiration for radical change in education owes much to free and charter schools in Sweden and the United States, both of which are permitted to make a profit. Thatcher's heirs are pretty robust in defending the role of profit-makers in hospitals, town halls and prisons. What is so different about schools?

The Conservatives, of course, are reticent, not because they are unconvinced of the merits of private enterprise, but because they fear the opposition to it. Political calculation rather than a lack of conviction stays their hand. Selling a muscular academies programme is difficult. Pushing it with a mark-up, they reason, is next to impossible.

Why has education remained taboo when health, incarceration and rubbish haven't? It isn't as if education is an entrepreneur-free zone. A few private universities can turn a penny, as can many hundreds of nurseries and many thousands of tutors. Indeed, vast swathes of Britain's higher education sector would cease to function if hefty profits were not squeezed from overseas students.

But for many teaching professionals, a for-profit provider in maintained schools is as welcome as a paedophile in Hamleys. This vehement opposition owes something to the fear that excessive choice will inevitably lead to job insecurity and a lot to the conviction that if a school is motivated by profit, it won't be propelled by a desire to educate. Education, it is argued, is a public and absolute good that is best unsullied by lucre-loving types.

The Tories could respond that this is to confuse ends with means. Involving the private sector in the public does not substitute the goals of the civil service with those of the market but harnesses the latter's superior efficiency and innovation. The resulting competition can, of course, lead to job casualties, but it can equally create opportunities. In any case, it does not determine career motivation. Medics in private hospitals are no less committed to the health and wellbeing of their patients than colleagues in public ones. Their vocation is not dependent on who owns the hospital. Why would it be any different for teachers?

One could argue that the involvement of the market in any shape or form in any public service is a mistake. That is a perfectly legitimate argument. But it is not one open to a government that has used private providers to cut hospital waiting lists, lock up its prisoners and recycle its rubbish, still less to its market-friendly Opposition. If the Tories were truly radical, surely they should be making the case for allowing for-profit companies into schools as long as the service they provided was free at the point of use? Tony Blair could give them some rueful advice on the dangers of being half-radical. How brave are they feeling?

Gerard Kelly, Editor; E: gerard.kelly@tes.co.uk.

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