The Conservative Party will fight the next election with a manifesto pledge to allow private companies to run state schools for profit. The claim, made in a report in the Independent, came as little surprise to most in education this week.
Education secretary Michael Gove has previously admitted he is relaxed about the idea of for-profit state schools, and the newspaper article reported that the idea “is now seen as a front runner for inclusion in the Tory manifesto” for 2015.
And so the battle that many of us in education have feared seems to be upon us. I believe that the debate over this question will be a defining one for our school system, as it seems unlikely that, once made, this kind of decision could be easily retracted.
And it could take hold quickly. It will not be just a few free schools that would take up such an offer, how many academy chains would quickly tweak their structures to become for-profit, and what would the profits be used for?
In writing this editorial, I turned to the SecEd editorial board to seek their take on the key issues in this debate. First, it is clear that those opposed to the idea, cannot simply rely on the ideological argument that tells us education is too fundamental a public service to allow business to take over. The mission statement of any school should never prioritise turning a profit ahead of student outcomes.
Supporters of the idea will be quick to point out that there are plenty of for-profit organisations already providing services to schools (not to mention examples outside education such as GP practices) and that firms running schools will have to provide value for money or face losing their contracts.
I don’t buy this justification. While I believe all education professionals strive to do the best for their students, through their vocation and passion, I have met too many corporate people and know that they will be satisfied with simply doing enough to retain their contracts. It won’t be a passion or a vocation for them. It will be about money.
We will be told that government or Ofsted can monitor and take action in coasting schools, but we have already seen a report this week on the academies programme and the covert admissions practices that are taking place there. For example, a lack of sufficient oversight here has led to some schools ushering away SEN students in order to protect their attainment levels (see our report on the Academies Commission report here).
Supporters will argue that for-profit schools will have separate education and corporate staff, and that would be important. But even so, it won’t be the headteacher in ultimate control and as soon as this is the case, I fear we are in trouble.
Business is also more efficient we are told – but many businesses cut corners where they can to save money, in areas where they think consumers won’t object. Services are cut or reduced to protect the bottom line.
We should never agree that this approach is appropriate in schools. Value for taxpayers’ money is of course vital, but the priority will always be the quality of the service itself.
The Association of Teachers and Lecturers has a clear idea of how this idea might manifest itself: The charter schools of south Florida, which are run for profit, and are “now largely in the hands of real estate companies who open, close, and sell-off schools for business reasons regardless of student needs”, the union told SecEd. The Miami Herald discovered that parents are charged fees for basic classes, an attempt to charge a parent for their daughter’s graduation, and fake records of admissions and school rolls.
Another argument we will see is that the quickest way to incentivise educational improvement in deprived areas may be through a commercial approach. I would look simply to the London Challenge to point out that this is not necessary.
No matter how you dress it up, profit-making schools will be institutions in which the overriding priority is not the students themselves. How can we allow that?
Pete Henshaw is the editor of SecEd. Email firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @pwhenshaw.