Oil and water trouble;Platform;Opinion

2nd July 1999 at 01:00
The Government's appeals for commercial help in financing education have fallen on deaf ears. Money-making and running public services don't mix, writes Doug McAvoy

There have been few U-turns in education under the Blair Government, but one is in progress.

In January 1998 the Government launched its education action zones initiative, an initiative which it believed would be led by the private sector. Under pressure from the National Union of Teachers and the Local Government Association, Education Secretary David Blunkett then made a pledge that commercial involvement would not be for profit.

But in the first round of bids to establish action zones there was only a low level of commercial involvement. The contributions made by companies were in kind rather than cash.

The NUT's analysis of the 47 bids chosen for further development in the second round shows that commercial involvement has weakened further. The majority of bids have been initiated by local authorities or have the LEA, or schools, as a lead partner.

Partners in the action zone bids are largely drawn from further and higher education, the health sector, careers, training enterprise councils, the police, chambers of commerce and education. With the possible exception of communications technology companies such as British Telecom and Research Machines, partnerships which have business playing a leading role are scarce. The only national companies with any prominent role are Tate amp; Lyle in the London borough of Newham and Shell in Lambeth.

The Department for Education and Employment press release on the 47 bids refers to three bids being led by business. The TES (May 28) identified these as from Oxfordshire, Islington in north London and Manchester Wythenshawe.

The first two of these bids are led by local authorities in association with established educational trusts - the Hamilton Trust in Oxfordshire and the Fischer Family Trust in Islington.

The Wythenshawe bid is led by the LEA with project management expertise from Manchester airport "in-kind", plus a pound;10,000 cash contribution.

From this evidence it would appear that the DFEE's claim that business-led bids play a central role in the development of action zones is based on the smallest of crumbs. The reality is that action zones have become just one of a number of methods in which the Government can target public funds to specific groups of schools. Action zones are now as far away as they could be from the brave new world anticipated by ministers when they were first revealed at the 1998 North of England Conference.

As far as the commercial takeover of individual schools is concerned, the experiment at Kings' Manor School in Guildford, Surrey, remains a one-off, with companies showing little interest.

Alongside action zones is the Excellence in Cities initiative triggered by the Prime Minister. The scheme consists of a pound;350 million injection for secondary schools in 25 local authorities: a scheme which, excluding the proposals for small education action zones, is predicated largely on central government cash injections with local councils expected to provide matched funding.

The Government's formal guidance to Excellence in Cities LEAs also expects the number of specialist schools to expand. But the guidance contains a fascinating admission. "There is a limit to the amount of sponsorship we can expect schools to be able to raise. We know from present difficulties that pound;100,000 per school for the increased number of schools presents real difficulties. We are reviewing the requirements and expect them to be eased."

Nowhere is there a clearer admission that the Government's hopes for enthusiastic private sector involvement in schools are now a thing of the past.

The Government is losing confidence in the ability of the private sector to contribute to revenue funding for schools.

Yet there is one area where the Government still hopes for such involvement, and that is in the out-sourcing of local authority services. Even here it has found great difficulty in attracting good contractors. Out of 107 organisations which expressed an interest in becoming service providers, the Government could only short-list 10; and out of 98 who wished to become consultants, only six could be found.

The Government should reflect on its policy on private sector involvement in education. That policy is failing because profits and public provision are like oil and water.

In the action zones the role of companies now mirrors the traditional educationbusiness partnership role. At local authority level, where the debate is how to provide schools with high quality and consistent support, the approach should be the same. Out-sourcing should not involve the operation of services for commercial profit through privatisation.

It is time to distinguish rhetoric from reality. The public sector can learn from the private sector. Partnerships can lead to mutual support - but not through the operations of the market.

Doug McAvoy has just been re-elected as general secretary of the National Union of Teachers for another five years

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