Profit plays no part in a truly public service

4th September 1998 at 01:00
Margaret Maden and James Tooley summarised cogently in your Summer Debate (TES, August 21) the arguments about who should run our schools. A key question, however, is not simply the respective competencies of local government and the business sector but, more particularly, the essential motivation of these two potential providers and the perception of that motivation in the public mind. We all need to have faith in the system.

Commercial involvement in education provision will always be open to the sneaking question: What's in it for the shareholders? Ranging all the way from the provision of a few innocuous brand-name items of stationery, through the widespread establishment of city technology colleges to commercial involvement in the new education action zones, there must remain the suspicion that business considerations may well outweigh educational altruism. The same argument might equally be applied to privatised gas, electricity and railways, in spite of government watchdogs.

It is significant that Margaret Maden, arguing for the retention of local authorities, refers to "the education service" (my italics).

For 36 years as a teacher, this is what I was proud to work for: a service provided and locally administered by elected councillors on behalf of central government, again elected by the people.

Margaret Maden writes that we should "remind ourselves that the education committee is a sub-committee of the full council".

The electoral process, the voice of the people to whom those elected are answerable, filters directly down to decision-making by education committees and thus to policy handed on to the local authority's officers to be administered.

Nobody pretends that the performance of local authorities has always been benign or even efficient. James Tooley writes of the "dire performance of many local authorities" and Margaret Maden concedes that there has never been "total customer satisfaction".

On the other hand, the current state of our railways, for example, suggests that the private sector can boast no monopoly of good practice, either.

Even so, the provision of education by those who wish to serve their communities, rather than line the pockets of their shareholders, is more likely to stimulate the altruistic motivation necessary in a public service.

This is also, of course, where governing bodies enter the equation.

Not only can volunteer governors never be motivated by pecuniary considerations, but they also represent a truly local constituency and serve to counterbalance the potential dangers of over-centralisation and distant, impersonal county halls, at least in the larger shires.

A combination of the elected Westminster government, elected councillors at local level and governors voluntarily committed to a particular school is essential for the effective provision of an education service in the true sense of that word.

Michael J Smith 10 Hillview North Pickenham Swaffham Norfolk

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