The private sector is looming large


The increasing influence of the private sector on state education is concerning and frightening, says SecEd editor Pete Henshaw

The summer looms large and your thoughts are no doubt turning to what will be a hard-earned rest and a chance to recharge. The final days of the school year often provide a time for reflection and after another academic year full of change and challenge there is certainly a lot to reflect upon.

Over the past few years I have dedicated this column to a range of issues, but probably most regularly (certainly in the past two years) to the policies of the government. I have, over the years, agreed and disagreed with administrations of all colours and I see it as SecEd’s duty to scrutinise and hold the government of the day to account.

After several years of doing this, I cannot help but feel that we are trapped in a circle of education policy creation. MPs get elected, dream up headline-winning policies, force teachers to deliver them, some policies stick around for a while, until new MPs get elected and it all starts again. They all have the same rhetoric, newspapers lap it up and all the while schools get on with the real task of education to little or no acclaim.

This is not to say that ministers cannot make a difference – for better or worse – but invariably they tinker around the edges while schools deliver real education.

However, in Michael Gove we have something more serious. His pace of change is altering state education forever and no-one in the Department for Education is taking stock, measuring impact, or checking that their policies are working. Taking a step back this week I have realised something. Having worked in education journalism now for several years, I have noticed a palpable change in the past 18 months which actually frightens me – makes me afraid of what the future holds for English education.

The unlinking of education from the state is something that we may never be able to change back. By 2015 a majority of secondary schools will be “academised”, many primaries as well; a raft of free schools will be open, as well as other academies – studio schools and university technical colleges. Is anyone considering the impact of this huge change to the structure of state education?

The looming large of the private sector and its influence over education has, of course, dominated the educational landscape for some time now. But the signs have grown stronger in recent months, with hints that Mr Gove is relaxed about eventually allowing profit-making schools.

Of course, the profit-makers have always been with us in the form of resource providers, ICT companies and other suppliers. However, the opening up of education to the private sector in the past 18 months has been dramatic – 10-year contracts to run free schools being handed over to big business, local SEN services being slashed forcing schools to move to the costlier private sector, Connexions services being axed, forcing schools into the careers guidance market. Everywhere you look, business is there and the line between businesses supporting state schools and businesses running state schools seems to get ever thinner.

At a recent function, I met a business man who had been involved with bids for free school contracts. When I challenged that companies will always put profits ahead of pupils, he countered thus: If an airline prioritised profit to the extent that planes were dangerous and falling out of the sky, they would lose customers and go out of business.

It is a good metaphor. However, I contend that every airline has, hidden away, an “acceptable loss” figure – the number of plane crashes that it feels it can “get away with” while not losing business. This reasoning is common in all businesses – the hard and cold bottom line of acceptable loss. This is why no business must ever be allowed to run our state schools – because they will care more about profit than children, and will undoubtedly set “acceptable failure” figures as they aim for nothing more than keeping their contracts. So let Mr Gove play around with league tables, and the curriculum – schools can cope with his tinkering. 

But whatever we do, we must stop him from selling our state education system down the river.


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