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15 November 1999

Privatisation threatens more schools

In deepest Tory Surrey, something odd is afoot. Francis Beckett advises us to watch closely

By Francis Beckett

Leaving aside the 15 city technology colleges set up by the Conservatives more than a decade ago, only one British state school in recent years has been handed over to the private sector. It is King’s Manor secondary school in Guildford, Surrey, which will re-open under new management as King’s College in September 2000.

It will be run by a company called 3Es, the “commercial arm” of Kingshurst City Technology College. The company appoints a majority of the governing body, which then awards contracts for school services. The biggest contract is for teaching the children and this goes, naturally, to the very same company. Nice work if you can get it. But none of this concerns Surrey County Council, which will at once throw in £1 million for equipment and facilities; nor does it concern the Department for Education and Employment, which has agreed another £700,000 – money that was denied when the school was under public control.

Now Surrey may be about to perform the same trick with the primary schools that feed King’s Manor. All these schools are in a relatively poor part of Guildford, surrounded by council estates. The idea, on which parents are being consulted, is to reduce the nine north Guildford primary schools to six, and link them in a new organisation called the Guildford Educational Foundation. If they show reluctance, “there might be a financial carrot for them”, says Andrew Povey, chair of the education committee.

The idea, apparently, is to achieve economies of scale, in order to provide, for example, more special-needs facilities than one school could afford by itself.

But isn’t this what local education authorities were supposed to be for? And don’t right-wing Conservatives like Povey believe that local education authorities are the cause of everything that is wrong in education? And haven’t schools been given control of their own budgets supposedly to free them from the grip of these vicious bureaucracies? Well, that may be so. But, just as in the bad old days, the primary schools in this area of Guildford will be forced to take all their services from a single body. The foundation itself, however, will be free, as Povey puts it, to “buy educational services from anyone it wishes”.

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Can Povey really be proposing to recreate local education authorities under another name? Or is there a hidden agenda? Is this all really a way of squeezing in privatisation by the back door? Povey sidesteps the question, and Steve Clarke, the deputy director of education, says privatisation “will be considered as part of the consultation”. And then the local Conservative MP, Nick St Aubyn, stepped off a plane from New York with that strange light in his eyes which says: the future works, why can’t they see it?

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He had been to the US with the parliamentary Select Committee on Education, and, a few days earlier, had sat at the feet of the privatisation guru, Benno C Schmidt Jr, the chairman and chief executive of the Edison Project, the biggest private contractor for publicly funded education in America. St Aubyn has no patience any longer. He wants to cut straight to the point, and ask 3Es or some similar organisation to step in and take over the running of at least some of Guildford’s primary schools.

“If we could get 3Es to take over the management of one or two primary schools, it would start to create diversity,” he says. “Then we need to persuade the church schools to develop a more distinctive ethos. And we would have 3Es schools, church schools, local authority schools, all keeping each other up to the mark.”

He has told Povey that the foundation route to privatisation is too slow. Privatise the lot at once.

It would just be a start. “If we move to a system where schools are quoted on the stock market, then capital will come from the markets and not the Treasury,” he says.

He is not at all daunted by the discovery that privatised education in the US is still not making a profit. Schmidt explained to him why. Only 1 per cent of US schools are what they call charter schools, and the companies need something more like 40 per cent.

“Edison is still not yet getting the necessary economies of scale,” St Aubyn says. That is why Schmidt is no longer interested in expanding into Britain. He is fully occupied trying to rescue Edison in the US.

Schmidt also, apparently, told St Aubyn that, since everyone knows private education is more efficient than public education, the charter schools always get less money. If so, it’s a mistake that has been avoided here. In Britain, King’s College in Guildford and the city technology colleges were given far more state money than the state schools. It is therefore surprising that Schmidt does not want to expand into the far more sympathetic territory this side of the Atlantic.

Povey, naturally, sees his new foundation less as a mini local education authority (public sector, therefore bad) and more as a pretend education action zone (theoretically private-sector run and supported, therefore good). Quite why the Conservatives are so convinced the private sector is always better at running anything than the public sector is not clear.

But the conviction has now spread to new Labour. In the latest magazine of the Independent Schools Information Service, Frank Dobson’s running-mate in the London mayoral race, Trevor Phillips, says that private fee-charging schools get “more bang for the buck”, and asks state schools to borrow some of their practices and share their management skills.

Watch closely what is happening in Guildford; privatisation of schools is on a roll.