Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Long reads
16 September 2002

Welcome to your local school, plc

Ministers want teachers to become entrepreneurs, and sell services to each other

By Francis Beckett

The school term began with a warning from the secondary headteachers’ union: the newly opened city academies (schools that were formerly comprehensives) are, in effect, state-funded private schools and they will widen social divisions in education, it said. But its words, I fear, will fall on deaf ears.

New Labour is not worried about social divisions. If you really want to understand what its education policy is about, look up a small and barely noticed clause in this year’s Education Act. It spells out as never before that the policy is to make schools constantly beholden to big business, so that they learn the business jargon, take begging bowls round corporate offices and start to behave in the way that ministers, who know nothing about business, fondly believe business people behave.

Even before the act, the government had announced that to become one of the new-style specialist schools, an ordinary (or “bog-standard”) comprehensive needed to raise £50,000 from a private sponsor. Once it has done that, oodles of public largesse become instantly available, enabling the chosen school to lord it over neighbouring schools.

Most business leaders, if they are going to dole out £50,000, must show shareholders that it is an investment which will improve the company’s profits. This is one of those simple truths about business that ministers seem unable to grasp. So approaching them for money requires care and skill. It helps, says Business in the Community, if you can talk to them in the language of business.

One school I know had it easy – the father of a recent pupil is one of the movers and shakers at a big bank. Even so, the school spent well over £50,000 on consultants and staff time preparing its bid to be a specialist school. Less-well-connected schools spend much more than that, and some have taken a deputy head off all other duties for months.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

Most of the other grand initiatives, including the city academies of which the secondary heads complain, work in this way: the principle is that you cannot rely on the public sector to judge how public money should be distributed. Only if the grey suits in big corporate offices are convinced that a school will succeed is it safe to spend your money and mine on it.

Content from our partners
How do we secure the hybrid office?
How materials innovation can help achieve net zero and level-up the UK
Fantastic mental well-being strategies and where to find them

But the latest idea, almost lost in the small print of the Education Act, goes one vast step further. It is no longer enough to make schools grovel to business and learn its language. They have to turn themselves into businesses. They have to learn to live in “the real world”, which, as we all know, is what goes on in the offices of big companies. Everything else is an illusion.

So the act allows schools to form companies in order to sell their services and facilities to other schools. If your child’s school is well off in particular expertise or equipment, it can make a bob or two by selling services to its less-well-endowed neighbours. What an advance from the flabby days when local education authorities arranged for teachers to meet and swap expertise, and for schools to exchange the use of scarce facilities. It was clearly a bad system because not a penny changed hands.

The new scheme will not increase the amount of money that goes into schools. It will simply redistribute the money schools already have. Poorer, less-well-equipped schools will have less money because they will have to rent facilities from their richer neighbours. Richer schools will get richer.

Setting up a company is not a simple matter, however, and keeping a company in profit is not a skill that you learn on a teacher training course. That expertise will have to be bought in – or teachers will have to be taken away from classrooms to learn it. This, says the government, will create an entrepreneurial culture in schools. But there’s no advantage at all in having an entrepreneurial culture in schools. What you want in schools is a learning culture.

In theory, the scheme is voluntary. In practice, schools will find that when they ask for money for repairs or staff or whatever they happen to need, they will be told that they should get the money through commercial transactions.

The theory is the same as the one that underlies the internal market the Conservatives created in the NHS, or the pretend market in the railway industry, or John Birt’s notorious internal market in the BBC. Nothing can work properly, it seems, unless someone is cutting someone else’s throat, as Tesco and Sainsbury’s try to do in the high street.

Now the government wants schools to learn to cut each other’s throats.