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Use index to follow the smart money 1998's record levels;Hot data;Briefing;Document of the month

WE ALL know that education is a good investment, but can you make money out of it? One City firm believes that you can. Earlier this year, Capital Strategies, a London corporate finance house, launched the Education and Training Index.

This lists publicly-quoted companies whose business is substantially involved with education and whose shares are traded on the London Stock exchange. The index tracks the movement of shares in these companies.

As the graph shows, investing in businesses that sell to the education sector can be profitable; but timing is all. According to Capital Strategies, an investment in the index made at the start of the school year, just as stock markets around the world were crashing, would have seen a rise of 14 per cent by the end of May.

However, an investment made between the autumn half-term, when stock markets started recovering, and the end of May, would have shown an altogether better return of 30 per cent. Of course, no one should invest money they need in a hurry in the stock market, because - as the index shows - in any one year shares can fall as well as rise.

So far there is no tracker fund for the education sector, so you can only spread the risk by buying all the individual shares that make up the index. These include RM, the major software supplier, and Nord-Anglia, the company best known for its education services, language schools and training division.

Many companies supplying goods and services to schools do not feature in the index as they are private companies.

These include several of the larger teacher-supply agencies. Many of the consultants bidding to run so-called failing local education authorities are also not quoted companies.

It seems that the City has now accepted it is possible to make money out of education. Should such profit-making businesses be confined to selling goods and services, or does the use of consultants to take over failing LEAs and schools suggest that there is a profit to be made from delivering education more cost effectively than the traditional public sector?

Ultimately, the answer to this question will depend upon your view of the effectiveness of the market compared to governments in delivering education.

The first test will be whether the private sector can turn around so-called failing schools and local education authorities without demanding further increases in expenditure, while still producing a profit for their backers or shareholders. But ultimately the stakes are highest for pupils, who only have one chance.

John Howson is a fellow of Oxford Brookes University and runs aneducational research company.E-mail: int.edu@lineone.net

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