Education Not for Sale

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As the TUC launches its campaign against profiteering in education, Christine Lewis argues why our schools should never be ‘for sale’.

We are at that stage in a Parliament where eyes are now turning towards the emerging party manifestos and policies on offer for education.

That successive governments have tried to introduce market principles into education, taking us closer towards a “for-profit” education system, is a unifying concern for education trade unions.

Academy “freedoms” are likely to be extended to all schools, whatever the outcome of the next election. The role of local authorities in the education of their communities is unlikely to grow. The talk is of a middle tier to rebut the accusations that education is run from Whitehall. But would this be another centrally appointed quango of cronies in hock to central government with no accountability to local electorates?

The TUC is co-ordinating an Education Not for Sale campaign and hoping to draw attention to creeping commercialisation in education. We have to champion the beleaguered professionals who plan, deliver and create educational opportunities from a sense of vocation and not because it’s lucrative.

There is a common belief that the NHS should not be run for profit. We have all seen the dramatic portrayals of Americans suffering at the hands of Corporate Health and hold our alternative care-driven health service very dear. This is much to the chagrin of those who would hasten Health for Sale and who pronounce it with irritation to be a “sacred cow”. 

So why isn’t education more holy and bovine? Moneyed folk will always be able to buy education as a commodity, but the majority of us rely on the public education service that our taxes fund. Most people want a good local school, a community college, or a university where teaching and learning are the currency and the profits are the knowledge and skills that should underpin our lives and society.

In this evidence-frenzied world, you may ask for signs that the sale-boards are up or whether in fact it matters. We can look to Sweden and some states in America where schools were shut down because they failed to make sufficient profits, potentially stranding thousands of children.

The myth is that if schools compete for “business”, they will flourish or flounder. But expansion is not a universally cherished goal among educationalists and closing schools is a community trauma. 

The commercialisation of education takes many forms. Beyond an outright sell-off of public assets, there is outsourcing of services, which until recently was confined to catering and cleaning. Where these services go others will follow. 

Recently, AET, the largest of the academy chains, declared that it was outsourcing all staff but teachers. It then confirmed that it would exclude teaching assistants, but is entirely vague about everyone else: learning support, welfare, technicians, librarians, business managers – in fact any of the numerous occupational groups in a school.

Once this half of the workforce becomes privately employed, it is not that much of a leap to privatise the teachers. Today they come for us, but tomorrow they will come for you. Local freedoms, also known as public scrutiny having a nap, can open up education to many money-making possibilities.

It has been nigh-on impossible to track the activities of 300 incorporated colleges, so trying to ensure probity in 22,000 academies is surely beyond the pale. Do we really want an education system that is comprised of small and medium-sized enterprises, driven by finance? Clearly some do and we have to ask why. 

Anti-privatisation of public service campaigns are not anti-private sector. It should be driving the economy, building infrastructure and manufacturing goods for public consumption and export; creating high skill jobs for young people. Instead it is increasingly encouraged to focus its profit-maximising duty to shareholders on public services that should be run with a different motive.

The TUC campaign will be publishing its recommendations which will include the call that no school should be run for profit and Education is Not for Sale.

  • Christine Lewis is national officer for education at UNISON. Visit www.unison.org.uk


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