Profits emotive

28th January 2000 at 00:00
WHY IS there such a powerful prejudice against the idea that anyone should make a profit out of schooling paid for from the public purse? Plenty of us do. Profits are made every time a local education authority borrows money to build a new school or a head buys goods and services to run it - profits that may even be shared by teachers who have pensions or interest-bearing savings that are interested in such things. So why should it matter whether the actual management of a school or of the service as a whole be for profit when the real issue is, as Tony Blair puts it, what works?

The answer for the most part has less to do with profit than with control and accountability. Nobody much cares about profits made by providing schools with electricity, water, or - as our survey of heads shows (page 22) - payroll services. All that matters is cost and effectiveness.

But providing education to a whole community - be it a school or LEA - is not a simple matter of procuring standard services and raw materials to produce a single homogenous product. It entails a multitude of value-laden decisions, the competing needs of different pupils and choices from the wide range of possible learing outcomes; decisions in which parents, teachers, governors and local and national officials and politicians expect to play a part or for which they are more or less accountable. This already produces enough irreconcilable demands without another player with an overriding need to turn a profit.

The idea that the profit motive would make education more efficient remains to be proven. What is certain is that business demands a clear and limited specification of what it is to supply and a single client. No commercial company would accept the kind of multiple accountabilities local authorities are subject to. But once a service requirement is reduced to an unambiguous customer contract, whether it is provided publicly or privately becomes as irrelevant as who owns the computer the payroll is run through.

The Government is naturally keen to have commercial alternatives to turn to when authorities fail. But issuing a few contracts to put pressure on LEAs to improve - which is all it has done so far - does not amount to privatising the whole schools service. And over the past 10 days both Tony Blair and David Blunkett have confirmed they have no intention of doing so.

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