Put private hands on the tiller

10th August 2001 at 01:00
Should education companies be put in control of school governing bodies? NO

"Managers must manage," I hear James Tooley say. "If we make a mess of it, market incentives will act, as shareholders sell their shares and parents send their children to other schools." Market forces led some schools to need help in the first place. Most parents want an education system which gives every child the right to a place in a good local school. Parents cannot switch schools like supermarkets. The social conscience of shareholders will not replace the checks and balances of representative democracy.

Are schools run in such a wasteful way that there are profits to be made without undermining the pupils' education? Business governors are usually impressed at how far school budgets go. Even if genuine savings could be made surely they should be ploughed back into classrooms so our children, rather than shareholders, can benefit? No, private companies will have to find ways of teaching more cheaply to make a profit.

Allowing private companies a majority on the governing body will make it easier.

Private takeovers of state schools so far have had an initial, large injection of public money. Initial spending on ICT could eventually mean savings on salaries. Fewer teachers and more teaching assistants might be cheaper, but pupils need both. Will requiring teachers to work for the shareholders' dividend solve our teacher recruitment problem?

A company with the controlling share will be free to buy services from companies in which it has an interest or from itself. Who will be the corruption watchdog? Other governors will presumably be denied information because of "commercial confidentiality".

If our small private companies were to take over enough schools to make a worthwhile profit they will be ripe for takeover by multinationals. Parents can presumably look forward to addressing their complaints to the company headquarters in Texas.

Perhaps, like city academies, the Government will encourage private companies to set up not-forprofit companies which will form the majority on the governing body, as churches and ancient foundations do in other schools.

Some schools have ways of keeping some local children out. City technology colleges, like church schools, can interview parents. Will these schools be given similar rights to pick and choose?

This experiment may be an example of how to manage without the education authority. What safeguards will pupils, parents and teachers have when things start to go wrong? Allowing the private company a controlling interest undermines local accountability. Imperfect as they may be, LEAs are run by public servants. I know "what matters is what works", what I want to know is what happens when, somewhere along the line, it does not work.

Manipulated by a small number of over-hyped examples, important principles are being sacrificed. How many more of our brightest and best will go into public service if this is the future?

If the Government insists on experimenting with the private sector it should also try other experiments. The Campaign for State Education has a few ideas. We need to strengthen local democracy and the concept of public service and find better ways to encourage grassroots participation. Parental rights to complain have not even been implemented. Why look only at the United States? In many parts of Europe parents have more influence. In any case, why choose only one small aspect of US practice to emulate? Why not allow LEAs to raise local bonds to repair schools, as in the US, instead of PFI? It seems that with this government money talks - over-riding the interests of pupils, parents, governors, local councillors and dedicated public servants.

Margaret Tulloch is spokeswoman for the Campaign for State Education.

Next week: Is the GTC value for money?

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