Treat yourself and tear it up, missus

3rd February 1995 at 00:00
It's a thick booklet, coloured blue. It must be from the Government. It's glossy and probably cost a fortune to produce. It really must be from the Government. It suggests that people in schools have lots of money to spend, are a bit gormless about how to spend it sensibly and can be gulled into selling a bit of land to a supermarket, and it mentions "profit" at regular intervals. It's definitely from the Government.

Yes, it is indeed the latest belter from the Department for Education that has been thudding on to the mats of Flybynight Enterprises Inc and Arthur Daley Ripoffs plc: an expensively-produced 49-page thriller entitled Education means Business: private finance in education. The message dripping from every page is, "There are rich pickings out there lads." With John Redwood apparently wanting to privatise Snowdonia, there is now no limit to loony right-wing marketing ideas.

Let me make it clear from the outset that I am in favour of positive education and business partnerships. There are good examples of benign collaboration, and many employers, schools and colleges have worked together to achieve these. I am right behind them. Education largely neglected the workplace in the 1960s and 1970s, and sensible, mutually beneficial partnerships have been a considerable strength since that time. What I object to is the invitation in this blatant DFE propaganda to go out and pluck the turkey. The DFE pitch has all the subtlety of huckster-speak. "Roll up, roll up. You won't believe what we've got 'ere. Tell you what, I like your face missus. Treat yourself. To you a tenner."

First there is the Del Boy come-on: "The education service has an existing capital stock worth Pounds 60 billion and public funding, both recurrent and capital, in the region of Pounds 25 billion a year . . . there are opportunities for any private sector company, large or small . . . The sort of partnerships that are possible will enable the private sector to profit both financially and in other ways from this large and relatively untapped market". So are you with us thus far lads? Yum yum. Message number one reads: These schools are awash with loot.

The booklet moves to come-on number two: "Another common factor is that recurrent funding is largely determined by pupil numbers. The more successful a school is in attracting pupils, the more funds it will receive. Schools therefore have every incentive to work together with the private sector in order to enhance their facilities." Got that lads? You're home and dry. Message number two reads: They are absolutely bloody desperate.

Now for the sting: "Schools are steadily moving from local authority control into the grant-maintained sector following a ballot of parents . . . Both grant-maintained and local authority schools provide attractive prospects for private sector investors . . . a developer might build a new facility in exchange for land owned by the school which it wishes to acquire, or schools might use facilities provided by supermarket operators in return for the firm's access to land forming part of the site." Still with it lads? The glossy booklet seems to have omitted the fact that 23,000 schools have not opted out, but message number three reads: They are so bloody desperate they might even sell you the sports pitches.

Then comes the knockout blow, the repetition, yet again, that schools are useless at managing, and business is absolutely wonderful at it, failing to recognise how well schools have managed against the odds in recent years: "Part of the benefit to schools of private investment will come from the introduction of professional and commercial attitudes to staffing and financial management. " Did you read message four lads? They're completely clueless.

Maintained schools offer "a significant market for private sector enterprise", it says helpfully, and, in the case of church schools, the local diocesan authorities usually own the site and assets. So write down message number five lads: The vicar's a cinch.

My advice on some of these "partnerships" the Government wants to encourage is: stick with people you trust. Find out what is happening in places like Birmingham and elsewhere, where business partnerships are not rip-offs, but well worked out for the benefit of the community. Failure to read the small print could be disastrous.

"Sharing risk with the private sector is fundamental," trills the glossy blue booklet. "Risks which a school or college could not afford alone become manageable." Yes, indeed, you said it, DFE. Del Boy Enterprises simply goes bankrupt and starts up elsewhere as Del Boy Investments. Meanwhile Swines-ville School picks up the bill and fires some of its teachers to pay it.

So don't swap valuable land for a few used supermarket trolleys and a bit of work experience for the pupils. The way education is often treated nowadays you'd probably get the trolleys with the wonky wheels anyway, and the pupils would end up stacking shelves. Don't believe some fast-talking entrepreneur who promises gold but delivers sand.

Businesses, quite legitimately, are there to make a profit. This is fair enough in the open commercial market, but quite wrong when it comes to profits versus pupils, shareholders versus parents and teachers. I do not believe anyone who says that such clashes of interest and priority will never arise. They may not in good times, but they certainly will in hard times. The Ashenlungs Tobacco Company will not be happy about anti-smoking posters, and the Posh-people Leisure Corporation will earn more from executive squash players than the school five-a-side league.

I am tempted to produce my own glossy booklet entitled The Reverse Ripoff. It will tell schools that business is awash with money, so sell them your surplus national curriculum folders as "executive document holders" at Pounds 50 a time. There are gullible directors, incompetent managers, surplus assets, just waiting to be picked clean. None of this is true, of course, but when did truth come into it?

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