Hunt for an ideal partner;Opinion

24th September 1999 at 01:00
Joe Hallgarten discusses the role of a new commission which aims to find out

how public-sector services, including schools, can find a private funding mate without impairing their function WHAT "communication" is to management consultants, "partnership" has become to New Labour - a solution to every policy dilemma. But partnership is a slippery concept, and a word whose overuse may render it meaningless.

In government, public-private partnerships have often emerged in response to short-term electoral considerations, rather than any longer term strategy over the funding of our public services.

In this context, it is hardly surprising that many in the public and private sectors feel suspicious of their new-found partners. Within business and government, the public sector is seen by many as inherently inefficient, producer driven, and incapable of change.

Meanwhile, many on the left - within both the Labour party and the public sector - retain an overt mistrust of business. Partnerships are perceived as a staging post for total business capture, the thin end of a privatising wedge. For them, merger reads "takeover".

It is for this reason that the Institute for Public Policy Research has this week launched its Commission into Public-Private Partnerships. It aims to trigger an open and informed debate to develop a set of key principles about the use of partnerships in every area of public service.

Education will obviously be a major component of the discussion. The spectrum of current initiatives, from traditional hands-off philanthropy to the total outsourcing of Kings Manor school in Surrey, is vast. The debate needs to encompass more than issues of financial transactions between sectors. Education action zones have been less successful at attracting private funding than was expected, but businesses may still become catalysts for cultural change in the zones.

Much of the rhetoric has justified public-private partnerships in education as "necessary evils": the Private Finance Initiative is necessary because the state is no longer prepared to pay for or retain the risk involved in new construction projects. Private-

sector involvement is necessary in certain local education authorities and, to some extent, action zones, because the public sector has failed.

For many businesses, the partnership approach is accepted as a subtle route into a nationalised industry currently worth pound;36 billion. And thousands of headteachers, enmeshed in a bidding culture that requires the "tyranny of match funding", such as specialist school applications, tolerate paper partnerships as the only means to secure extra finances.

At a recent conference, a school bursar claimed that he would have any company's name tattooed to his forehead if it boosted school funds. He was advised not to accept their first offer.

However, genuine partnerships need to be built on more than just mutual expediency. How can both sectors be harmonised to create a progressive model for delivering public services? The most successful partnerships are not those that encourage the public and private to ape each other, but allow them to play to their relevant strengths, achieving outcomes which neither could bring about in isolation.

Consider, for instance, a vision of a "turnkey school", where a private "facilities management" division has left teachers free to focus on their "core" function, curriculum delivery. Is such a neat boxing of a teacher's role possible or desirable? One purpose of the commission may be to attempt to draw a line in the sand tray between a school's or a teacher's core and peripheral services.

Any school can be a vital medium through which to build social capital in a community. Any business can, through an effective partnership, contribute enormously to this goal.

Conversely, business can be a liability. For instance, how would the contracting out of all services affect a school's role as a local employer? Take school meals:

currently, many lunchtime supervisors are parents, and provide an informal link between the school and its community. School dinners have the (occasionally literal) potential to be an essential ingredient in a school's "social glue", a potential that a remote private company may have no incentive to harness.

The Government's preference for pragmatic solutions - the "what works" mantra - may need firmer ideological foundations. Partnerships can often have seductive short-term outcomes, as the teachers and pupils of Colfox school in Dorset, currently enjoying their first term in a new pound;15 million PFI-funded building, would verify.

But if the school becomes a piece of prime real estate in several decades' time, will PFI still have worked? The IPPR's

independent commission is well-placed to locate preferred outcomes of partnerships well into the next century.

Joe Hallgarten is research fellow in education policy at the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR)

The IPPR would welcome the views of teachers, parents and others involved in education. Please contact Gavin Kelly, commission secretary, at

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