The State's fall from grace

22nd June 2001 at 01:00
Schools have laboured under the dead hand of council control for long enough. It's time to let others have a go, says Neil McIntosh

Twenty-five years ago I believed the state should provide pretty much everything. I once told a housing asociation director that the council should provide homes for all and that housing associations were entirely superfluous. My belief in the benevolence of the State would have been touching had I not been the local-authority housing chairman, with the power to put my simplistic assumptions into practice.

Shortly afterwards, a fellow councillor proposed that tenants be allowed some control over their living conditions, for example, by helping to decide the work schedules of estate caretakers. But the then local-authority union, NALGO, refused point-blank to allow people living on council estates any influence over the way their members worked. The scheme was stillborn.

A couple of years later I became director of the housing charity, Shelter, which worked mainly with people who depended on public services. As a lawyer from the Citizens' Advice Bureaux pointed out, the idea that those providing public services were ultimately accountable to citizens was a joke. For most of our clients the experience of dealing with the various arms of government was nasty, brutish but rarely short.

I went on to become director of Voluntary Service Overseas. I saw aid programmes that seemed to give impoverished governments just enough resources to stifle the enterprise of splendid schools run by parent-teacher associations. Around the world social control, not social justice, seemed to be the main purpose of public-sector education.

Latterly I have become chief executive of CfBT, a charity providing education services. My work with education action zones has brought me into contact with an intriguing network of "supplementary" schools set up over the years in Lambeth, south London, primarily by ethnic-minority communities. They did so because they were fed up with the way that state schools, certainly under past regimes in Lambeth, had failed their children.

Like CfBT, these supplementary schools are private, though not commercial, enterprises. The people behind them are the cornerstone of a pro-education culture without which national education success may well be unachievable.

Although my own belief in the State has diminished, that old 1970s ideological prejudice - which sees the private sector as one-dimensional profit-seekers and refuses to accept the existence of self-interest in the public sector - is still surprisingly prevalent today. A local authorty chief education officer writing recently in The TES deplored the Government's decision to give money directly to schools, which were "likely to act in their own interests rather than the common good". This when the main thesis of the article was the supposed disinterested efficiency of local education authorities.

For all the rhetoric about "privatisation" we have not had an intelligent debate about how non-government bodies can help to supply public services. Perhaps out of fear of such a debate the Government has resorted to one-off initiatives which, in their complexity, tend to undermine the transparency essential for effective regulation and for users of public services to be empowered. An opportunity to kick-start this debate comes this week, with the launch of a report on public-private partnerships by the Institute for Public Policy Research, a centre-left think-tank with close links to the Government.

The failings of state provision are a consequence of monopoly not public-sector values. At one time the public-sector monopoly may have appeared to work in the interests of the education professionals. But government now applies growing central controls that seriously undermine the autonomy and status of teachers.

Teachers should be accountable but primarily to parents, as they are in the independent sector. At the recent National Association of Head Teachers' conference there was talk of profit-sharing for teachers. By all means, but at least as important is the autonomy which flourishes in the best of the independent sector and has energised teachers to provide huge added value in and beyond the curriculum.

Diversity may not be in the interests of top public-sector managers who want to keep their empires intact or of politicians who fear loss of control. It will be a challenge to trades unions which tend to be as keen as politicians on national uniformity. But the example of Denmark, where light regulation allows people of disparate views to get state funding for their school shows a suspicion of state monopoly can be entirely consistent with the interests of civil society.

People are desperate for better public services. Teachers and consumers of education alike should be clamouring for the freedom and opportunity to provide them.

Neil McIntosh is chief executive of CfBT, one of the country's largest specialist education services providers and a charity. In a recent Insititute for Public Policy Research paper he urged ministers to encourage non-profit-making companies to establish chains of schools, funded by the state but under independent management

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