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31 January 2000

More bang for the buck? Prove it!

Focus on education - Francis Beckettasks if private schools really do give better value tha

By Francis Beckett

The most consistent theme of new Labour education policy is its desperately one-sided love affair with the private sector. David Blunkett has stuffed the pockets of Britain’s biggest management consultancies with gold in return for dubious wisdom about how to run schools. He is the best thing that ever happened to the mushrooming education consultancy industry, where fortunes are being made out of his apparent conviction that the private sector knows how to manage things and the public sector does not.

So it should come as no surprise to find new Labour’s candidate for deputy mayor of London, Trevor Phillips, calling on state schools to learn how to manage their affairs by watching, and copying, fee-charging schools.

Phillips sends his two daughters to North London Collegiate School. The Independent Schools Information Service’s Dick Davison saw that this could be splendid publicity for fee-charging schools, and arranged an interview.

In the course of this interview, Phillips said: “I know this will annoy a lot of people in the state sector. But a lot of private schools are very good at managing their resources, getting more bang for the buck.”

It is true that there are some well-run fee-charging schools; there are also some very badly run ones. Even those that don’t select their pupils still have parents who are motivated enough to pay fees. So their job is much easier than the state schools’ job.

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But private schools also have a lot more money. Average fees for a fee-charging day school are £5,463 a year; in London, the average is £6,111.

It isn’t easy to find the exact comparison in the state sector because of the absurdly complicated system imposed on schools. But according to a National Association of Head Teachers survey, the average sum delegated to schools is £2,422 per year per pupil, and local authorities may be spending up to one-fifth more, giving a total of £2,906. That’s a little more than half the fee-charging schools’ figure of £5,463.

At North London Collegiate, Phillips is paying about £7,500 a year for each of his daughters. For that, he is getting one of the best fee-charging schools in London, able to select the cleverest girls, and, not surprisingly, able to boast excellent examination results.

Not far away in north London is Camden School for Girls, which also boasts excellent examination results, and has been described by Ofsted as “outstandingly successful”. It is a comprehensive school, with an entry system designed to ensure a genuinely all-ability intake. Its budget is £2,714 per pupil per year. If you add in the cost of central services provided by Camden Council, you get up to a notional figure of £4,034, though the real comparable figure is probably in the region of £3,500, or less than half what Phillips is paying.

So fee-charging schools don’t get more “bang for the buck”. They just get a lot more bucks.

Does it matter? Yes, it matters terribly, for three reasons. First, new Labour, by continually urging state-school teachers to look at fee-charging schools and copy what they see, is undermining their confidence. Second, ministers urge teachers to copy a sector of education whose history and ethos is about the provision of a privileged education for the rich. Third, it is quite misleading to suggest that the private sector is the solution to all our education problems.

Are schools not achieving in Islington? Then pay PricewaterhouseCoopers more than £250,000 to devise a scheme for handing them over to private contractors. Do we have a problem with inner-city schools? Don’t worry about the social deprivation behind them; just get some management expertise and the schools will magically get better. (I’m not making that up. The scheme is called Excellence in Cities.)

Yet, surprisingly, I suspect there is a way in which fee-charging schools could contribute towards the education of all our children. I offer it to David Blunkett, mentioning in passing that if he requires a detailed study of the proposal, my daily consultancy rates are considerably lower than those of PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Here is my offering. Fee-charging schools were very upset at losing the assisted places scheme, which allowed them to select a small number of pupils whose fees would be partly paid by the government. Labour scrapped it – the only action it has taken that is hostile to the private sector in education – because it allowed fee-charging schools to cream off the brightest children, and required taxpayers to cough up something like twice as much for the education of children on assisted places as for the education of other children.

But suppose we offered approved fee-charging schools the chance to escape from what Dick Davison has called their “gilded ghetto”.

Suppose we offered to pay, from the public purse, the full fees, provided those fees were set at the same level as it costs to educate children at the local state schools. And suppose, as a further condition, we insisted that the schools have a genuinely mixed-ability intake, as Camden School does.

Vivian Anthony, secretary of the Headmasters’ Conference, the top public schools’ club, suggested something a little similar just before the 1997 election. That way, he said, “Labour can put its hand on its heart and say that it is spending no more money on educating an assisted place pupil than on a state school pupil”. But he wanted schools to keep their present levels of fees, raising the rest of the money from charities, or charging the parents. He did not seem to be confident that fee-charging schools could compete with state schools on genuinely even terms.

Under my scheme, the fee would be all they got. It would have to do, just as it has to do for state schools. That way, we would increase genuine parental choice, and we would swiftly discover the truth. Do fee-charging schools really deliver “more bang for the buck”? Or do they only look good because they have been feather-bedded for generations?