Should schools be run for profit?;Summer Debate;Yes;Opinion

30th July 1999 at 01:00
In the first of a summer series of debates, two policy specialists clash over the role of private firms in public education

There are, no doubt, a few people out there who would renationalise BT given the chance. For that matter, there are some who would put Marks amp; Spencer into state ownership. But, to most of us, the experience of state control is pretty dreadful. No one seriously argues, for instance, that book publishing or fashion would be more efficient if they were run by the state.

Evan Davis, economics editor of BBC2's Newsnight, tells of one stand-up comedian who humiliates a heckler thus: "Who cuts your hair - the council?". How we all titter. But what about this: "Who educates your children - the council?" Am I really saying that the state, the council and the local education authority are unfit to educate our kids? Of course not. There are as many good state-run schools as there are bad. But we should realise that the state has no god-given right to educate children and no prior hold on educational good practice. And private, profit-making, schools can teach us a lot.

Remarkably for a Labour government, for the first time we have ministers and policy-makers who are indeed alive to this. When it comes to good practice and good ideas, they are happy to take them from any type of school - state, independent, profit-making, charitable... What matters is what they can do. As David Blunkett put it in April: private-sector involvement in state education will "transform the culture of complacency and under-achievement" in poorly performing schools.

Education action zones are just the most obvious example of this. Contracting out the services of some education authorities, making use of some private schools' facilities and other similar schemes all recognise a key fact: that the educational apartheid which disfigures society means that we squander the skills and facilities of some of the best schools in the land.

So what problem does Matthew Taylor - my opponent in this debate - and many other otherwise sensible people have with making money out of education? Let's be clear. There are those whose opposition is of a piece with the rest of their views - dogmatic, ideological and dangerous. Matthew isn't one of them. In most areas he's spot-on.

But he speaks for the gut instinct of many when he deals with profit. They may pretend their attitude to profit in education is different from anything else, but in fact they reveal a deep-seated contempt for profit itself. To them, profit is the unpleasant but necessary price we pay for ensuring that something gets done.

The plumber who fixes the boiler does it because he makes money. Is the job any less valuable than if the council had paid him to do it? Of course not. But that doesn't stop us castigating him for "ripping us off", for having the gall to charge a hefty mark-up - for making a profit.

But education is the final straw, the one area that must remain free of such venal concerns. Since private schools are themselves anathema (whether profit-making or charitable) it has at least the virtue of consistency. And for those who claim to welcome the skills of the private sector, it allows them to have their cake and eat it. "Oh yes, we're so modern, so New Labour that we talk to the private education firms, even work with them. But we hate them really, because they make -ugh! - profit! It's just something we have to do."

I could list the evidence for private schools - league tables, the testimonials, the exams, almost everything. Of course, many are charitable bodies, but a growing number are run for profit, very successfuly. And we know that in almost every other sphere the market delivers the best services.

But the dogmatists who believe profit should never figure in state schooling base their attitude not on facts but on state of mind. If we dislike the idea of profit, then no amount of evidence makes any difference.

Stephen Pollard is a columnist for the "Express" and a former policy director of the Social Market Foundation

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