Let's hope privatisation talk is just a bluff

29th June 2001 at 01:00
Am I the only education-watcher who found the Queen's Speech mystifying? What on earth is all this stuff about forging ahead with more privatisation? The P-word is guaranteed to raise the political temperature - exciting the Right and alarming the Left. Yet I can't see what extra magic ingredient the private sector can offer the education system - other than in very specific circumstances. Am I missing something?

This is how I began the first draft of this column, last weekend. Then I opened this week's report on public-private partnerships, from the Institute for Public Policy Research, and felt a sense of relief. I was not alone. A commission of 14 economically-literate big cheeses - including the Chairman of WH Smith and the chief economic adviser to the Confederation of British Industry - have come to pretty much the same conclusion.

Let's say it loud and clear: the private sector has little to offer in the further improvement of education, except in very specific circumstances.

Some of these are very striking. Valerie Bragg and Stanley Goodchild, two of the most experienced and creative educators in the business, have triumphed at King's College in Surrey. If they can make their blueprint work for other failing secondaries, more power to their elbows. They represent the injection of fresh energy and good management which the private sector, at its best, can offer.

Most private involvement is still at the margins. As recently as 1999, only about 10 per cent of public education spending was on privatevoluntary sector provision. And most of that related to supply teaching, in-service training, special education, and school meals and transport. Hardly a take-over of sacred educational space.

In the future, the only acceptable strategy will be "what works?". The private sector should be involved only where it can genuinely offer a better deal. There is simply no need to fiddle around with parts of the system which are doing fine. Yet, before the election, Estelle Morris was saying that private companies should have the chance to run successful schools and LEAs, rather than only being allocated the hard cases. This was simply baffling. In a cool-headed, pragmatic politician, it smacked of the ideological frame of mind - "public bad, private good" - which the IPPR's commission criticises.

But maybe, so far as education is concerned, there is a different explanation. Perhaps the answer is that this Government is running a game of impression management. After all, the rhetoric of privatisation fulfils three useful functions. First, it buys time. Ministers' real policies - Sure Start, the increase in nursery places, the literacy and numeracy strategies, Excellence in Cities, the new focus on key stage three - will bear fruit only slowly. Yet we, the electorate, demand instant results, in a positively babyish way. So the constant noise surrounding privatisation is a holding operation, while the reforms get a chance to take root in the classroom.

Secondly, it appeases the City and the hard-nosed businessmen which this Government has wooed so successfully. They don't have a clue how state education is run or financed, so are easily satisfied by ritual phrases said by a powerful person, and they like the idea that there is a financial killing to be made by someone somewhere. And thirdly, the threat of privatisation keeps the whole system in a state of constant alert - like a bunch of meerkats on the watch for predators.

Number 10 policy wonks say privately that the Government, in pursuit of its long-term aims, sometimes has to signal right, and turn left. So "privatisation" becomes a bone thrown to Daily Mail readers, while the real education policy is to improve the life-chances of working-class children. I'm still enough of an optimist to hope that this is what's going on.

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