The Private Farce Initiative

23rd May 2003 at 01:00
There is a belief in government that private provision must invariably be best. Don't ask me why. It cannot be based on any rational analysis of, say, the railway system. Nor can this touching faith be reinforced by any proper consideration of what has happened in education, where some private enterprise has bordered on the farcical.

Private schools are the biggest mixed-ability group in the world, ranging from outstanding schools by any standards, to fleapits and embryonic torture chambers. In some of these the only expertise seems to be the proprietor's ability to extract large fees from gullible parents without recourse to a sawn-off shotgun.

Private provision of other kinds is similarly varied. Some companies providing in-service courses, for example, have done an excellent job.

Others have charged a fortune for complete tripe. Firms of headhunters and educational consultants may be very clued up, or totally ignorant.

My experience of the latter goes something like this.

"Hello, it's Godfrey Boggins here, of Boggins, Utterly and Clueless. Look, sorry to bother you, but we've been engaged to find a chief executive for the National Institute of Teacher Bashing. I gather you're a bit of an expert in education, though I have to confess I'd never actually heard of you myself. I don't really know anything about education." "Well, I..."

"Only I was just wondering if you could suggest any names of people we could talk to about the job. You wouldn't fancy it yourself, by any chance, would you? The salary's a hundred K, negotiable upwards." "I don't really..."

"Can I run one or two names past you that we've had suggested? Mildred Scattergood? She seems to have the right CV."

"Er, didn't you know she got 10 years for strangling the chief education officer of Swineshire during a committee meeting?"

"Well, bless my soul, I never. What about this Italian chap Benito Mussolini? He seems a decent sort, good track record for getting things done."

Education must be the only field in the country where complete ignorance is a prime qualification. You're a professional? Get lost. If you ever tender for a lucrative contract, remember to say that you know bugger all about education. With your mind untainted by any relevant knowledge, you will be gratefully welcomed like the prodigal son and handed a zillion-pound contract.

Paradoxically, private provision can lead to greater uniformity than the state equivalent. If you hire armies of private entrepreneurs, the temptation is to give them exactly the same brief, so they cannot bog it up, though some are such seasoned incompetents they would bring you a rhinoceros if you asked for a hamster.

Teams of Office for Standards in Education inspectors work to an identical framework, which is fair enough, until some turn into the speaking clock and act like brainless zombies. Heads described their training for threshold assessment in the most hilarious terms, as hired hands whacked on one transparency after another, for exactly 30 seconds, or whatever their handbook told them, unable to answer questions. It was a dire example of programmed uniformity.

Every week sees examples of the Government's unshakeable belief in private companies. Jarvis, a firm that has no sustained track record in education, though it has an unfortunate track record in railway maintenance, has been given a multi-million pound contract to work with failing schools. I wonder if some will be cancelled because of leaves in the playground, or "operational difficulties" on the bottom corridor.

Now Pearson, a publisher, has been allowed to buy up an exam board. Pearson is a very good publisher, but that is not the point. A private company should not be running an exam board for profit. There was no public debate about this issue and the first news of it appeared in the business section of a Sunday newspaper, before the takeover had been announced.

Apparently the firm has technological wizardry for marking exams, which starts with the spine of the exam booklet being ripped off by a machine.

Really? I know candidates who will rip them off for nothing. If they have the right technology, then this is a reason for exam boards to buy or rent it, not for a takeover. Otherwise we might as well sell off the other boards to the firm that supplies their computers, or to the Acme Coffee Company that helps examiners stay awake.

In any case, I have a much better answer to the problem of marking 24,000,000 exam scripts in three weeks. It is never to require children to take so many in the first place. My solution, therefore, is the cheap-est and simplest private provision of all. A large box of matches.

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