Privatisers pull back

7th September 2001 at 01:00
ECONOMISTS are fond of saying that the budgets judged boring when they are unveiled are the ones that prove successful in the long-run. If the same rule applies to education white papers, maybe in a decade we'll be hailing this week's as a masterstroke.

After a summer of growing tension over privatisation, the document itself feels like an anti-climax. Yes, there is a greater role for the private sector. Companies will be invited to bid to work with any school identified as having serious weaknesses. But it is difficult to avoid the suspicion that this says as much about the failure of the Government's fresh start policy and a lack of fresh ideas for improving failing schools as it does about faith in private enterprise.

When it came to the crunch, thankfully the Government was not prepared to hand over public-sector staff to private firms or to give companies control of governing bodies. But there is no such luck when it comes to league tables. The Government's decision to publish 14-year-olds' results is an own goal that could easily have been avoided. Teachers will be angry and parents indifferent. GCSE and A-level results, not key stage 3, are the public's measure of a school's worth.

Privatisation and league tables have overshadowed some more positive policies. Greater freedom for successful schools is a step in the right direction of freeing up all teachers from Whitehall control. And ministers deserve praise for their efforts to foster co-operation rather than competition between schools.

The idea that successful schools could be paid to help failing counterparts at least acknowledges that the private sector does not have a monopoly on solving public sector problems and may help to build bridges between the educational haves and have-nots.

But the teacher shortage will limit the ability of schools to look beyond their own gates and help others. One of the great failings of this Government is that its own spin has often got in the way of improving teacher morale, recruitment and retention. The privatisation rows of the last few months have ensured that once again the profession is hearing a negative message.

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