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  1. Politics
10 July 2000

Education, education, profit

Does Blunkett realise that the people behind his latest wheeze favour an end to state schools? Franc

By Francis Beckett

Do you ever wonder what happened to those serious young men and women who used to debate Marxism as though it were a sacred text? I met them the other day. They are older, naturally; they wear suits instead of faded jeans and they meet in much more salubrious surroundings. I found them drinking wine in the marbled halls of the Institute of Economic Affairs, a Molotov cocktail’s throw from the Houses of Parliament.

Today, they matter – I watched them describe the education system that privately they know they have already persuaded new Labour to adopt. And the sacred texts are no longer the works of Marx. Their new philosophical hero is Friedrich Hayek, and they were attending the ninth Hayek Memorial Lecture, an annual tribute to the apostle of free markets and inspiration for a generation of Thatcherites.

Their leader in Britain, a respectable university professor called James Tooley, was once a radical teacher in the socialist south London borough of Lambeth. His friends were expelled from the Labour Party for left-wing deviationism. He believes that the international leader, the Lenin of the Hayekites, the American entrepreneur Benno C Schmidt Jr, is watering down the sacred text, owing to an incorrect interpretation.

More of that later. For the moment, they are united around Schmidt, who came to lecture his loyal followers about the Ameri-can way of privatising schools. That very day, on the other side of Parliament Square, the Education Secretary, David Blunkett, was giving tangible form to Schmidt’s ideas by publishing the prospectus for the British version of America’s charter schools, called city academies.

In Great George Street, SW1, Schmidt was telling the faithful about “the inexorable turn of the world towards Hayek’s truths”. Hayek was “a thinker whose powers of analysis were matched only by his courage”. Liberal historians had tried to write him out of history, but truth will out. Schmidt’s speech was a clarion call for the state to get out of education and leave it to the market.

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And also in Great Smith Street, SW1, where the Department for Education and Employment has its headquarters, Blunkett was announcing that his city academies will “take account of the best lessons of city technology colleges and charter schools in the United States”. Proposals from private-sector organisations that would like to run one had to be with Blunkett by 7 July.

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It is already clear that Blunkett has incorporated into his proposals all the worst features of both US charter schools and the Conservatives’ discredited city technology colleges; and that he has made preparations to tilt the playing field, in order to demonstrate that city academies perform better than state schools.

They will be independent schools for which a sponsor – a business, a church, a charity or a very rich individual – is expected to find a fifth of the capital costs, which could be up to £2m. The government will find the rest. The government will also pay running costs, and far more generously than for other schools. Each city academy will get the same amount for each pupil as other schools in the area get, plus any amount that the local authority keeps for centrally provided services. In addition, it will get an extra £123 per pupil, and more if it has more than 1,200 pupils. “There will be no requirement for sponsors to provide a contribution to running costs,” says the prospectus.

Their modest share in the investment will give sponsors a level of freedom in how they run the academies that no state school in Britain, and no education authority, has ever had. They will decide the composition of the governing body. The Education Secretary will have to approve it, but that’s hardly the same as having a set number of parents who are elected by other parents, and staff elected by other staff. Such democratic safeguards will continue to apply to state schools, but Blunkett has ensured that future private-sector owners of schools will not be burdened by them.

Sponsors will also be given “considerable freedom over management structures and processes, and other features such as the length of the school day, terms and year”. They can decide pay and conditions of staff independently of national pay scales. They can seek permission to “disapply” any parts of the national curriculum they don’t like. If they are taking over an existing school, they can fire any of the existing staff they don’t want (the state will pay any redundancy money due). No state-run school can do any of these things.

Even if they took in the same pupils as their state-school counterparts, city academies would have a huge advantage. But they will not take the same pupils. They will be free, within limits, to control their intake and to get rid of disruptive pupils.

They can select up to 10 per cent of their intake on the basis of aptitude for the school’s specialism. As for the other 90 per cent, the “admissions criteria must be clear, objective, and fair . . . they must admit pupils of different abilities”. If Blunkett had wanted to make sure that city academies had the same sort of intake as other schools, he would have laid down that their admissions criteria must be the comprehensive ones used elsewhere.

City academies are supposed to take over from failing schools. Failing schools have one invariable characteristic: a core of seriously disruptive pupils. City academies will not have to take these pupils.They will be dumped on neighbouring local authority schools.

So Blunkett is bringing in city academies to solve the problem of failing schools, and then removing the pupils who caused the problem. He will transfer the problem to some other luckless school, which can later be condemned as failing and replaced with yet another city academy.

This scam is made even more cynical by the government’s increasing insistence that schools should not get rid of disruptive pupils. Schools are now “fined” for every pupil they expel. City academies, on the other hand, will arrive at their own agreements with the Secretary of State when they want to expel a pupil.

Those of us who think this is not a good idea may be comforted by the failure of the city technology colleges announced in 1986 by the then education secretary, Kenneth Baker. It quickly became obvious that businesses were not going to put up the sort of money the government expected. Ministers were forced to reduce drastically their financial expectations, and to go in for a lot of creative accounting to try to show that business was putting up worthwhile sums of money. After 15 of the planned 20 CTCs had been built, each requiring more effort to get less money out of private sponsors, the Conservatives pulled the plug.

But Blunkett has put in the element that Baker balked at. Nowhere in the prospectus does it say that the sponsors of city academies cannot make a profit. That puts a new complexion on the thing. A new business can get investors if there is a reasonable likelihood of profit. The US charter schools have shown that.

In the US weekly journal the Nation, Leo Casey, a teachers’ union official, writes that there is “a growing array of venture capitalists and for-profit corporations driven not by education but by the hope of profitable business opportunities. These corporate forces are joined by conservative politicians and right-wing ideologues who view charter schools as the thin end of the wedge that will prepare American society for greater educational privatisation . . .”

These right-wing ideologues include Milton Friedman, who has criticised Benno Schmidt for selling out on the pure Hayekite faith. Schmidt’s schools, he says, are ideologically unsound because they take government money. The pure Hayek-ite knows that only if the consumer is paying the full cost of education do you have a truly free market economy.

Britain’s Professor Tooley is of the fundamentalist variety of Hayekite. Unless he has entirely forgotten his Marxist training, he will soon decide that Schmidt is selling out on the true faith. Then we will see Tooley and Schmidt, like John Cleese at the start of Life of Brian, shouting “splitter” at each other with growing venom. The venom will be increased, as it is among Marxists, because they share a common vision, spelled out in Tooley’s recent book Reclaiming Education: an education system in which the state has no part at all. If the parents can and will pay, a child gets educated; if they can’t or won’t, it doesn’t.

Charter schools and other means of bringing “market disciplines” into state education are simply a transitional stage on the road to this vision.

Does Blunkett know what he is getting into?