Former Blair adviser puts his money on for-profits

10th August 2012 at 01:00
School reform needs to be quicker and more aggressive, he says

One of Tony Blair's closest advisers has revealed that he tried to persuade the former prime minister to allow state schools to be run for profit.

Sir Michael Barber, who was head of Mr Blair's delivery unit, argued during the last Labour government that the prime minister should back for-profit schools as a way of accelerating school reform. His proposal failed to win support because the Blair administration expected that it would cause an outcry among Labour MPs, according to Sir Michael.

"I have personally argued in favour of this, right back when I was in the Blair administration. I didn't win the argument inside, but I am in favour of for-profit," Sir Michael told the BBC's Hardtalk programme in an interview due to be broadcast next week.

"It would have been a big battle in the Labour Party, obviously, but my argument is this: your job as a government is to give children a good education as fast as possible.

"What I was arguing about is when you have got very poorly performing schools, finding ways of replacing them and giving the children in those schools a good education as fast as possible is a really important mission."

Sir Michael is now chief education adviser to Pearson, the world's largest education publisher. He said that while the company was involved with one free school, it was not lobbying government for the right to operate free schools for profit.

"It is not something we are urging government to do," he said. "We are in dialogue with government about a range of things, but it is not a priority for us."

His comments come after education secretary Michael Gove revealed in May that he thought the government "could move to that situation" of for-profit free schools in a second term.

"There are some of my colleagues in the coalition who are very sceptical of the benefits of profit. I have an open mind," Mr Gove said. "I believe it may be the case that we can augment the quality of state education by extending the range of people involved in its provision."

Sir Michael, a former teacher and NUT official, said he believed the government should be even more aggressive in the speed of its reform of education. "When you look back at the Blair administration - and I think if you would ask Tony Blair the question he would give the same answer - I think we didn't go fast enough. We should have gone further," he said.

"I can't impress enough on you how much I think it is important that we improve the quality of education, not just in this country but right around the world. And I think we were on the right lines, but I think we could have gone further, we could have gone faster, we could have gone broader."

Teaching unions have opposed for-profit schools, pointing to evidence from Sweden that they lead to poorer results and a widening gap between children of differing social and economic backgrounds, caused partly by hiring cheaper, unqualified teachers.

Asked whether unions were holding the country back in education reform, Sir Michael said: "There are unions all around the world and they take varying positions and I do not want to, with a broad brush, just sweep them away. But we need people in our school systems who see the importance of improving the quality of education rapidly to give young people the better chance they can have in life."

Hardtalk is due to be broadcast on BBC World News and BBC News on 13 August


There is no evidence that allowing for-profit schools will improve standards, according to a report published this week by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) thinktank.

The report argues that schools should remain public institutions, with innovation and reform driven by the not-for-profit and public sectors.

International evidence from Chile, Sweden and the US does not support the introduction of for-profit providers, the left-leaning IPPR claims. It follows a number of reports from other thinktanks arguing for private businesses to be allowed to run state schools.

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