Who profits: Edison or the pupils?

The multi-million pound deals to run academies for profit will push private involvement in schools in this country into a new phase.

Edison Schools, an American education company, plans to run 12 schools that will not breach the ban on companies running schools for profit - a principle supported by the three main political parties - but it will come close.

Edison will not run the schools, which will retain their independent governing bodies, but it will be paid Pounds 1.2 million for a three-year contract to manage each academy. If it hits its targets it will take money out of schools' budgets. The company is involved with more than 60 schools, but until now it has provided only training and consultancy, not a management team, to all but one of them.

Union leaders say that the deal could pave the way for a rash of international companies to descend on the UK in search of profits from education. This seems fanciful. Edison's history suggests that running schools provides no easy route to a bonanza. The important question, as with the private sector's role in academies, is whether the arrangement will turn around struggling schools with difficult pupils.

Where is the evidence that it will? The story from the United States, where Edison is the biggest for-profit operator of state schools, is far from conclusive. Results have improved in some Edison-run schools. In others, progress has been slow and contracts have been cancelled. A junior school in Las Vegas went back to public ownership after it was decided that pupils could not cope with the rigorous testing regime.

The company says its success elsewhere is down partly to its insistence on computerised monthly tests in English and maths. Pupils' results are posted on the backs of their chairs and on the door of every classroom. It's hard to see how such a regime would mesh with an English system that is edging away from two decades of oppressive testing.

The best way to help schools improve, all the research suggests, is not to call in the private sector but to persuade school leaders to share their expertise. The isolated school, huddled behind its barriers, is disappearing. A new spirit of co-operation is abroad. Why bother asking private companies to run schools when the secrets of success lie within the education system?

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