This government has both an ideological and a commercial commitment to privatisation of public services in Britain...
Back in September 2011, in Norwich, Prime Minister Cameron spoke of “changing the structure of education, allowing new providers in to start schools – providing more choice, more competition and giving schools greater independence”.
He went on to elaborate who these new providers might be. “We’ve said to charities, to faith groups, to businesses, to community organisations, teachers: ‘Come in and set up a great new school, in the state sector’.”
A few days earlier, Education Secretary Michael Gove had said in response to questions on the BBC, “We don’t need to have profits AT THE MOMENT” [our emphasis].
In other words, the necessary change in the law to allow profit-taking from state schools has not been ruled out – and given the government’s pressure to set up more and more academy trusts and so-called “Free Schools”, the likelihood is that such change is already planned.
Denis MacShane and David Ward, both MPs in Yorkshire, have repeatedly asked questions on the funding of new free schools in their Rotherham and Bradford constituencies. Their questions on funding, demand for the schools, pupil numbers, start-up costs and so forth, remain unanswered on the spurious ground of “commercial confidentiality”. Since when has the funding of state schools ever been subject to “commercial” considerations? (Maintained school budgets are always published annually.)
This government has both an ideological and a commercial commitment to privatisation of public services in Britain.
Gove has often stated his support for the charter schools in the USA and the “free schools” in Sweden, both the product of free market, anti-state provision governments heavily influenced by Chicago School privateers and Wall Street vultures. This type of organisation seems to be the model to which he’s working, particularly with free schools and the “forced” academies where it is claimed a school is underperforming.
The net effect of this twin movement is to diminish local authorities so that any council control of schools ceases or just covers a rump of school provision. In turn, this means that people in the locality of a school lose any semblance of control over what that school does, and any effective means of holding the school accountable for the provision it offers.
The head of the Association of Directors of Children Services recently asked for public clarification from the government as to where responsibility lies for holding academies (no longer technically schools) and free schools to account. No public response.
The experience of academy trusts, free schools in Sweden and US charter schools has been mixed. Some adhere to local and national curriculum requirements; some diverge. Some stick to national staffing provision, conditions and pay; others don’t. Some adhere to admissions procedures; some try to ring fence their admissions. In terms of quality, studies in the USA show that charter schools do not generally make the improvements claimed for them when tested against the same measures established for school board/state schools.
Susanne Wiborg’s* excellent paper on the Swedish experience cites evidence from studies that show a similar pattern after 17 years of “free schools”.
Gove and his government hold up academies as a shining light of progress. But the evidence is not unequivocal.
Some of the original academies have certainly achieved better outcomes than the schools they replaced. But that is not universally true and in many areas the improvements made by other local schools have been equally impressive. Indeed, much of the progress claimed for academies does not stand up to scrutiny according to the government’s preferred measures. For example, in 2010, half the 5 GCSEs (A–C grades) claimed by academies were “equivalent” qualifications such as GNVQs – the percentage of such quali-fications for other schools was 25 per cent.
So why this break up of state schooling if it’s not about quality, as claimed?
At the beginning of April 2012, Cameron repeated his assertions about providing “more choice”. as a “child of Thatcher” would be expected to. But the Swedish free schools have been shown by Wiborg and others to have limited choice for many, by increasing the segregation of students where integrated schools were previously the norm.
Most Swedish free schools continue to follow a curriculum similar to that of maintained state schools. The exceptions tend to be where the proposers/owners have a curriculum or method or “platform” that they wish to market. Or where they are “faith-based”.
Additionally, after nearly two decades, the number of providers of Swedish state-funded free schools has fallen significantly. Monopoly rules apply, with there now being five large providers, some smaller groups and relatively few left in the control of the original proposers, i.e. parents, teachers etc. The number of free schools funded by the state has risen to 700, but the three largest for-profit companies running free schools now have a quarter of all free school students in their institutions.
And profits are plentiful from these state handouts. In most of these schools profits ranged from 8 per cent of turnover to a magnificent 50 per cent.
Follow the money
And that’s what this is all about. Ideology, certainly; profits, most certainly. As Lester says in the fictional crime series The Wire when talking about municipal corruption, “Follow the money, Jimmy, follow the money.”
Charter schools, too, have shown a similar pattern in the USA. There have been dodgy statistics to try and justify their impact on pupil progress, demystified in 2009 and 2010. Companies have collapsed, leaving children and neighbourhoods without schools and school boards without school places as they have lost the premises to (now bankrupt) companies. Some school boards such as Philadelphia’s, have taken back charter schools because of their abject inability to deliver their promises and boasts.
Some charter school providers have been ditched by investors because they have failed to make the profits envisioned. Talking of one prominent education company also involved in British schooling, a Wall Street guru blamed the collapse of the share price on the company’s willingness to form partnerships with state school boards rather than set up “cheap to run” schools of its own. As with the stripping of the New Orleans state school system after Hurricane Katrina, where the replacement charter schools immediately sacked over 4,500 teachers so they could introduce lower wages and conditions, this is what these asset strippers want.
What is the attraction in England? Education here has been involving private companies for well over a decade. Capita, Edison, Cambridge Education, Serco and others have been involved in running or partnering local education authorities in the past 12 years. Whole swathes of government initiatives and schemes have been managed by private contractors.
Ofsted, arguably one of the most powerful organisations ever established to enforce compliance to government will in this country, has always relied on private contractors. Originally, there were about 150. Now, there are three core providers for the whole country.
There is big money involved. In 2009, contractors in education support services and running Labour’s education strategies were involved in a market worth £2 billion. Yet even this is small compared with the total annual spend on state education in England and Wales. Revenue expenditure on schools will stand at about £50 billion this year. Total expenditure is likely to stay just below £90 billion. It’s a big market by anyone’s standards, especially as once you’re in it, there’s a guaranteed funding stream and no competition.
Sweden is a much smaller “market” but is still proving popular with companies run for profit. The John Bauer organisation made 120 million Swedish Kronor profit in 2006. In 2008 it was sold on to the Danish company Axcel, a venture capital company that had previously specialised in home styling products and dog food. Kunskappskolan runs its schools on a McDonald’s-style franchising basis. This company, the sixth-largest free school provider in Sweden, has plans to operate academies in London and Suffolk.
Gove’s reforms, if taken to fruition, would have a fundamental effect on the quality of education for our children, on conditions in schools, on pay and on our ability as a nation to plan for the future as the cash pours into private pockets.
Anders Hutlin, CEO of Global Management Education Systems, a company based in the United Arab Emirates, was quoted in 2010 as saying, “It [English education] can’t just be handed over to amateurs. We are exploring opportunities right now, supporting groups of parents. That’s a natural starting point.”
Do we really want our schools to be run by these people? ■
*Wiborg, S (2010) Swedish Free Schools: Do they work? published by the Centre for Learning and Life Changes in Knowledge Economies and Societies. See http://www.llakes.org