Multinationals in control

Companies now running schools in the UK come from a variety of charitable and profit-making sectors.

For the past couple of decades, our education has outsourced more and more services to large service companies. When New Labour introduced the academies scheme in 2000, Blair made it very clear that the private sector was being invited into our schools, to share part of the financial burden with the public sector.

Now the Tories are flinging the doors open wide, following the model of the US charter schools which, says our Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove, have "done a fantastic job, free from local bureaucratic control, of transforming the life chances of young people. Children who would not have expected to graduate from high school are now going on to elite colleges because of the quality of the education that they enjoy". The requirement for an initial injection of £2m has been dumped, companies are being freely encouraged to come in and set up entire schools in what has been described as the Gove Schools Revolution.

So, who are these companies who are coming in to set up our schools? The main source of information on this subject is the New Schools Network (NSN), the organisation part backed by the government to help parents and teacher set up their own schools. (Slightly worrying, the NSN has recently been attracting headlines for being reluctant to reveal who, besides the government, is providing its financial backing.)

The list - which is not comprehensive - on the NSN website includes the non-profit organisations and Charity Academy providers such as ARK, the trust famously set up by the billionaire Arpad Busson, the hedge fund magnate often seen out and about with supermodels on his arm, Ormiston Education, the Harris Federation, Oasis Community Learning and others. The goals of many of these organisations are, as Ormiston states on their website, "To help the most disadvantaged members of society, particularly children, to achieve and learn", to "encourage aspiration", and to "transform learning and regenerate communities".

And several of the profit-making companies listed claim, similarly, to view education as a social and ethical responsibility that they take extremely seriously and view with an almost missionary zeal. Christopher Hyman, the head of Serco, ("the biggest company you've never heard of", according to the Guardian) told an interviewer: "I am very passionate about our values and building this company not to make a profit. If profit is an immediate by-product, then that's wonderful . . . If you can make it have an impact on society, people's lives and make it fun, crumbs, then we don't have to worry about making this profit or that. It happens naturally."

The for-profit companies eyeing up our system include EdisonLearning, Serco (mentioned above), Nord Anglia, IES (Internationella Engelska Skolan), and Kunskappskollan. Also out there, but not on the NSN list, are the VT Group and GEMS, among many others.
Of those, the largest, as mentioned above, is Serco, a vast international service and outsourcing company, which employs 70,000 people and has fingers in almost every area you can imagine, including transport, welfare, health, environmental services and defence. Bradford Council signed a ten-year contract with them in 2001 and, in mid-September this year, held an extraordinary meeting to discuss taking control back when the contract comes to an end next year.
The VT Group - also known as Babcock, the UK engineering group, and similarly a service company with a vast spread of interests - is also involved in defence, a leading supplier of aircraft and support services to the UK's navy and airforces. The Anti-Academies Alliance, points out that Marcus Watson, their managing director for education, recently told the Times that the current system was too slow and fragmented to provide the number of new schools that p--oliticians envisage, and that he dreams of running up to 1,000 - a number he believes is not "unrealistic".

Coming in from the countries who we are now trying to emulate are IES and Kunskappskollan, both of which have already been at work in Sweden for the last few years; Kunskappskollan runs 33 schools in Sweden and has a policy of being non-selective. From the other side of the Atlantic, EdisonLearning has a patchy pedigree: its parent company, Edison, in the States was bang at the heart of the Charter School plans. Famously, Edison began life with the dream of running 1,000 schools, and even floated on the stock market. But things did not go according to plan, and the company only had one profitable quarter in four years before going back into private ownership. The Wall Street Journal describes how "Mr Whittle [the founder] and Mr Schmidt lacked management skills and patience . . . With no experience dealing with big-city unions and politicians, Edison blundered into disaster after disaster."

In the seven years since it set up in the UK, EdisonLearning has concentrated on providing education services to schools here, and is staffed largely by ex-teachers who care deeply about education, points out its director of development Tim Nash (an ex-teacher himself).

Gove's cheery description of the Charter School system, where private companies set up and run chains of schools for profit, does not entirely match the version of events that others recognise. The US campaign group Parents Advocating School Accountability state: "We have come to view charter schools as a weapon in the arsenal aimed at weakening and destroying public education. While some individual charter schools are functioning effectively, the charter movement overall is creating unaccountable schools that answer to no authority and that do harm to school districts - and children - in myriad ways."

And the other model - the Swedish Free School system, where 75 per cent of schools are run for profit - on which the Tories similarly depend for support, was dealt a heavy blow by a review published by Research in Public Policy earlier this year, which looked at studies into the system and concluded that the benefits went to children from more privileged backgrounds, while "the impact on low-educated families and immigrants is close to zero."

Will all this take hold? Will the private sector be allowed to come in and subject our children's educations to market forces? Fiona Millar, education campaigner, says; "I'd be surprised if it takes off. I think that in the end this is not what parents want for their children. The problem is that people just don't know, just as we don't know who is providing our children's school dinners. But look what happened there. We didn't like Turkey Twizzlers and there was a huge furore. The same thing could happen all over again."