Put private hands on the tiller
Failing state schools badly need the incentives that the private sector can bring. But if a private education company is to be given the responsibility of transforming a failing state school, then it must be able to manage that school effectively. Genuine power requires a controlling stake in the school governing body. So the idea to be mooted in the education White Paper, due to be published in the autumn, is exactly right and it must not be watered down. The law must be changed to allow education companies to appoint a majority of governors.
The logic of this is obvious. The governing body of a foundation school - the most likely structure in any moves towards privatisation - has massive powers. It is the body that manages the school's budget, sets targets for pupil achievement, regulates staff conduct and discipline, and determines the number of staff, and at which grades they are appointed. The governing body establishes the performance management policy and draws up any action plan after an inspection. Crucially, it is also the employer of all staff in foundation schools. And it appoints the headteacher - the key figure that all research shows is indispensable to improvement.
The glaringly obvious point here is this: how could an education company do anything significant unless it controls the governing body? Without this, the school would have two management teams - the governing body, and the education company. It is this situation - not the proposed reform - that is lifted "straight out of the Railtrack book of management chaos", as Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, put it.
The unions and champions of local government predictably don't like the idea. Their objections show where significant players stand in their relationship to what really matters in schools. Graham Lane, education chairman of the Local Government Association, says: "Company members on boards of governors could sack anyone they wanted and hire anyone."
Exactly right, Graham. But instead of thinking of teachers' rights, the Government is thinking about the rights of children trapped with teachers who are not up to the job.
Doug McAvoy, general secretary of the NUT, doesn't like the "privatisation by stealth" but, above all, he thinks that it "is alien for teachers to work in an environment where their efforts are directed at maximising profits instead of wholly at pupils' needs".
Some companies, of course, will be non-profit-making, like CfBT. But if for-profit companies do get involved - and I hope they do - then they cannot increase profits unless they are dedicated wholly to pupils' needs. The two are not mutually incompatible. The only way an education company can expand its market in competition with others, is by showing that it does put children first.
Mr McAvoy's criticisms are aimed at the wrong target. It is governing bodies as they are now that can get away with not focusing wholly on pupils' needs. They can acquiesce in mediocrity, and not be brought to account. An education company will immediately feel the pinch financially if it is not focused on raising pupils' expectations and standards.
David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, although believing that there is a case for private-sector involvement, thinks that giving companies control over governing bodies is "a step too far". On the contrary, with competing education companies given real power we can expect real improvement for some of the most disadvantaged children in our society. Without that change, all the government's noble aims will only be so much whistling in the wind.
James Tooley is professor of education policy at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne