Stop privatising education!

Submitted by Anon on 3 May, 2005 - 11:33

Schools Minister David Milliband demonstrated the Government's adoration of business involvement in schools when he declared that every FTSE company ought to become a sponsor for state secondary schools.

Labour wants to channel private money, sponsorship and "expertise" into every corner and crevice of the UK school system. We already have "action zones", "clusters of excellence", Education Business Links, partnerships, providers¦ In the first of two articles on the state of the UK school system, Rosalind Robson examines the record of the private sector in education.

Labour's first "privatisation" of education was "Education Action Zones" - a local partnership between business and schools. EAZs, they said, would "modernise education in areas of social deprivation". What did they mean by "modernisation"? And did they really care about "social deprivation"?

In all areas of the public sector, the introduction of business culture was intended to shake up crusty old public sector behemoths. In education, Local Education Authorities, headteachers and other workers, were going to have a new regime of capitalist work-discipline that would "deliver" education more effectively. That is what Labour meant by "modernisation".

New Labour did also want to be seen to be tackling social deprivation. Or, rather, they wanted to present the education system as a level playing field; to say that education enabled social mobility.

But New Labour's presentation of "meritocracy" was actually a pitch to the middle classes, whom they want to attract back to the state system, and whose votes they want to secure. The corollary was ditching "bog standard" comprehensive schools and introducing, so they said, greater "choice" - hence, specialist schools, City Academies and the like.

Like the Tories before them, New Labour claimed they were creating greater "choice" for all parents and students, whatever their background. But that is not true.

"Choice" is always much more available to middle-class parents who can "work the system", who will move to live in the catchment area of the schools running high in the league tables.

The City Academies, privately run, publicly financed schools, will be able be able to select the students they want. Many working-class children are already not getting access to those schools. Academies, with their better funding, will end up being the schools of "choice" for the middle class.

New Labour are creating a two-tier education system. Despite the rhetoric, they are not tackling social exclusion. That would require reversing the legacy of Thatcherism - the social inequalities and poverty caused by that government - a policy that, for New Labour, is economically too expensive and politically unpalatable.

Which is why, according to a recent report by the LSE/Sutton Trust, children from poor families in the UK are much less likely to fulfill their potential than in other developed countries.

Much of this, the report says, must be due to "social selection" in state schools. With New Labour's latest policies, the inequalities are set to get worse.

New Labour are not especially concerned with businesses generating direct profits from education. Likewise, businesses don't see their role in those terms. But New Labour do think private capital in the public services is an all-round good - a guarantor of efficiency, effectiveness and innovation.

This from the Government's "Standards" website about specialist schools: "Sponsors can help to instil in pupils a spirit of enterprise, self-reliance, responsibility and motivation which will help to prepare them for success in their working lives. Sponsors can provide valuable contributions in relation to curriculum development and delivery, work experience, and governance."

For their part businesses get involved in sponsorship because the costs, even that of part-financing the building of a City Academy, are pretty paltry. Donating a bit of IT kit is not going to break the bank for most big businesses. The benefits in sponsoring education are less tangible but they are valued.

It's good PR for the 700 corporate members of the "Business in the Community" umbrella group to get their employees to volunteer help with reading in schools.

There may be more tangible spin-offs along the way, such as organising lucrative training courses. Or maybe voluntary services can be combined with pushing your product. Greggs plc runs a Breakfast Club for "disadvantaged" primary school children.

The gradual encroachment of business culture into education, will, as time goes on, undermine the hard-fought for working conditions and pay rates of education workers.

Everywhere that private companies have been in control they have as least some power to determine contracts. On the evidence so far, they have used that power to the detriment of their workers.

Education Action Zones

EAZs were partnerships between about 20 schools with voluntary organisations, businesses, LEAs and others. The stated aim was to improve some aspect of educational standards in a particular area.

The goals were often very minimal. For instance, one of the EAZs aimed to increase school attendance by 1%.

The original contracts for EAZs ran for three years and some were extended for another two years.

Each EAZ had to raise £250,000 a year from its business partners and would then receive up to £750,000 a year from the Government. Many of these EAZs are continuing as smaller partnerships, transformed into Excellence Clusters and Excellence in the City Action Zones.

What is wrong with the EAZ-style "partnership"?

  • It makes schools in poor areas compete for extra Government money. Many schools did indeed see the project as a way to get some extra cash - they played the bidding system, then went on more or less as before.
  • Many of the EAZs engaged in creative accounting. For instance, the construction giant Mowlem and Leary in Newham offered to show pupils round their training centre and asked during the tour whether they fancied a career in construction. This went down as a £40,000 contribution to the zone.
  • A recent report by Cardiff University found that the EAZs/Excellence in Cities project has targetted money poorly. Extra money for small "clusters" does not tackle more widespread social deprivation.
  • The idea that business would generate "discipline" and tough targets was wrong. The attainment targets were often vague and general.
  • The idea of the EAZ partnership was to create another tier of governance for a cluster of schools - but one made up of appointees and donors, one where, unlike on the Local Education Authority or boards of school governors, there are no elected representatives.

This is in line with the Government's long-term goal of abolishing LEAs altogether.

Privatising LEAs

In the early years of New Labour, "outsourcing" was confined to inspection of schools, the Schools Careers Service, school cleaning, and so on. In 1999 and 2000 many LEAs got "bad reports" from the Chris Woodhead-run Ofsted. The Government used those reports as an opportunity to give private companies a bigger role in delivering and managing education services. Private companies have replaced most of the roles of a number of LEAs. However, no LEA has been handed over to the private sector since 2000.

Some councils were able to opt for half-way measures. Leeds LEA formed Education Leeds with Capita as a "strategic partner".

The record of privatising education services has been diabolical.

For example, the record of the private companies that now manage local schools:

  • W S Atkins in Southwark, south London had its contract ended early
  • Capita in Leeds had its fees held back for failing to meet contractual targets;
  • CEA in Islington was fined for failing to meet contractual targets.

Voluntary "outsourcing" of LEA management can also be triggered by "Best Value" reviews.

Surrey LEA went though this process and ended up setting up its own management consultancy - Surrey School Support Services - as a Joint Venture Company with Vosper Thorneycroft Education (yes, a subsidiary of the ship builders!). The Surrey venture also touts for business with other local councils.

These companies do make a profit. Though they are paid a fixed negotiated price for their services, they ensure that there is a margin for profit in the fee. They also try to make "efficiency gains" (that is, cuts) within the terms of the contract.

There are often bonuses tied to the targets in the contracts (and many, although not all, have avoided penalty clauses). Performance targets? Well these can always be renegotiated¦ downwards.

Many thousands of education workers are now employed by private companies. Although workers employed at the time of the transfer to the company are protected by TUPE arrangements, and should not see a deterioration in their terms and conditions, new workers may be employed on different contracts and with less favourable terms and conditions.

The Private Finance Initiative

PFI contracts have been used to improve or replace school buildings or to provide fixed services such as heating, catering, ICT or general management.

New buildings built by the PFI contractor are leased back to the LEA at an annual fee that covers the initial expenses including interest on loan repayments. It's expensive for the LEA that pays the fees - much more so than other ways of financing capital projects - but very profitable for the contractor.

The Government now has an umbrella project for its schools building and renewal programme. 180 schools are due to benefit from £2.2 billion. Of this money, £1.2 billion will be allocated to PFI contracts.

Breakdowns in PFI contracts can be disastrously expensive. The finished product is often full of flaws.

  • In January 2003 the Audit Commission compared 17 schools built under PFI schemes to 12 schools financed and managed in more traditional ways. The quality of the "traditionally built" schools was, on average, better.
  • Brighton Education Authority had a contract with Jarvis, paying them £105 million to upgrade and maintain four Brighton schools. Deadlines weren't met. Buildings were signed off that weren't fit to use. Jarvis added on 33% for "management costs" when the school used the buildings "out of hours". Jarvis has now sold its share of the PFI project.


This latest flagship project could completely transform the school system. Academies combine the Government's dogmatic attachment to "business culture" with increasing inequality in education, extending the role of religious institutions, attacking the workers, and undermining democratic accountability.

The idea of Academies - publicly funded schools that are both owned and run entirely by private companies - originated with the Tories in 1986, although the basic model comes from the US.

The Tories abandoned it as unworkable, introducing instead City Technology Colleges.

There are now 17 Academies, and the Government wants to see 200 built by 2010.

The basic idea is to knock down a "failing" school and rebuild it using some private money. Effectively most, if not all, newly built schools in the UK will be Academies.

The Government is very determined to build these schools even where local people and education workers think they are not needed. When a local school was closed in Moss Side in 2001 and rebuilt and reopened as an Academy run by the Church Schools Company, parents and teachers objected. No one listened.

The Academies were originally planned to cost £10 million but many have gone way over that budget.

A compulsory £2 million contribution by the private sponsor(s) meets in most cases now less than 10% of the overall building costs.

In return for this minimal, one-off payment, the sponsor will get rights of ownership in the school building and land (a separate charitable Trust is set up for each Academy) and - crucially - effective control of the Academy's governing body.

Academies can determine some of their own curriculum and have some control over admissions.

According to the Times Educational Supplement, many of the existing sponsors have not yet paid in full the price of the schools they have "bought".

Private sponsorship, according to the Government, will bring "innovative approaches to management, governance, teaching and learning."

Hey, what directors of Bristol City Football Club - backer of the Bristol City Academy - don't know about teaching A level chemistry isn't worth knowing!

The Government would very much like to see more religious organisations getting on board.

Partly this is to ensure the success of the policy - the Christian churches have a lot of prior experience in managing schools.

It also means involvement of so-called "charitable" trusts, such as the Vardy Foundation set up by a potty evangelical Christian millionaire businessman (see box).

The Academy policy is very much in line with New Labour's encouragement of faith schools.

Apart from the personal religiosity of Tony Blair and some of his ministers, New Labour want this because they see church schools as centres of excellence.

Lots of white middle-class people agree with them, and pretend to be practising Christians just so that their children can go to church schools.

However, according to a 2001 report from the (right-wing) think tank Civitas, there is a great deal of variation in standards across church schools.

If many Academies are taken over by church groups, as well as the evil of much more proselytising of mumbo jumbo in secondary education, there is a danger of increased selection. In this case, selection based on faith, as well as on aptitude.

But one trouble for the Government has been that, despite all the touchy-feely talk from businesses, not many are prepared to put up serious cash. That is why the Government have brought the price of "sponsorship" down to £1.5 million.

So what's wrong with Academies?

  • Academies introduce more inequality into the system. A 2001 report by Price Waterhouse Cooper stated that the extension of Academies across the UK will create a two-tier system of education. Middle-class families tend to benefit most from such schools.

    Because of the funding and publicity surrounding them, Academy places are in great demand. For September 2004, the City of London Academy received 800 applications for 180 places. This means that the Academy can cherry-pick the most able students. (Academies can already select 10% by ability, and the signs are that that threshold will increase.)

  • Academies disenfranchise local working-class people. When Djanogly College (an Academy) took over the site of Forest Community School in Nottingham, parents were told that the children at Forest would be guaranteed a place at Djanogly. That did not happen. According to a headteacher in a primary school in the catchment area, these are some of the most vulnerable children from poor families. They will now have to get a bus across town to get to an alternative school.

    Because Djanogly is not accountable to the LEA, there is nothing these children or their parents can do about it.

    These better funded schools do like to pick and chose their students.

  • Academies will seriously erode pay and conditions. More than half do not apply the pay structure and pay levels set out in the School Teachers' Pay and Conditions Document. Several have longer working hours and more working days in the year. Almost half have no recognition agreement with trade unions. In only a minority of Academies have pay, conditions of service, working hours and union recognition all remained unchanged.

Specialist schools

About half of all secondary students are now taught at specialist schools - schools that have some extra provision for business, sport, drama, art, etc.

Specialism creates another appearance of "choice" in the schools system and it is also another opportunity for schools to link hands with the "business community".

To get a specialist school designation, schools have to find £50,000 from private companies. The government matches those funds and the money is used to finance a capital project that will "deliver" the specialist subject.

Again, schools now have to compete or go through a complicated set of hoops to get the cash they need from the Government.

And what about these specialisms? Whether it is better for students to be taught in a school with a pretend stock exchange, as opposed to a school with decent facilities for all subjects, is a highly debatable point.

How we stopped an Academy

By Matt Bailey

Parents, teachers and students of Northcliffe School, serving Conisbrough and Denaby near Doncaster, stopped their school from being turned into an Academy run by a religious organisation, the Emmanuel Schools Foundation (ESF).

The King's Academy in Middlesborough (ESF's only other academy) excluded 28 students in the first few months of opening - an exclusion rate 10 times the national average! These students are often the most vulnerable and challenging. Academies do not suffer the same financial penalties for getting rid of "less desirable" students. Excluding 28 students would cost a maintained school more than £100,000 in fines.

The Emmanuel Schools Foundation was set up by evangelical Christian Sir Peter Vardy, of Vardy Cars. In Vardy's schools the fundamentalist religious ethos rules: Harry Potter has been banned from libraries (too satanic), and students have their own Bibles stored in their form room. "Fire and brimstone" school assemblies are justified as a way of warning children about the dangers they face in life - "saving your soul" is as important as safely crossing the road.

Then there is a 1950s' regime: the denier of girls' tights is specified, there is no hair gel and no hair colouring, hair must not touch the collar, long hair on girls must be tied back, there will be no jewellery and no make-up, you will suffer a brutal discipline system (permanent exclusion for being caught smoking a second time).

But the biggest problem with a Vardy school is the Biblical literalism. This perversion of education (described as "educational debauchery" by Richard Dawkins) includes teaching creationism as equally valid as evolutionism in "science" lessons, and teaching that God intervened to stop the Nazis from invading Britain in World War Two. And, of course, they oppose homosexuality, sex outside marriage, abortion, divorce, etc.

Our campaign to stop Vardy getting its hands on Northcliffe School was successful for a number of reasons.

  • It involved all the unions - NUT, NASUWT, UNISON, GMB - and a mix of teaching and non-teaching staff.
  • It linked up with a parents' group who organised three public meetings in different areas of the community under the slogan "They took your pits, they took your jobs, don't let them take your school". These meetings attracted 200 people each.
  • We challenged the apathy of local councillors. The chair of the campaign stood in local elections as an independent against the academy proposal. She gained more than 6% and beat the Tory candidate.
  • Our campaign got media coverage: local press and TV, national radio and national newspapers.
  • Students were active in the campaign, speaking in meetings, making banners and placards, organising school debates.
  • The primary concern of the campaign was against privatisation with secularism secondary. A focus solely on the fundamentalist sponsor would have allowed the Local Education Authority to undercut our arguments and find a less Christian sponsor.

We had an additional, important factor on our side.

Many of the campaigners learned their political lessons in the miners' strike -Conisbrough is an ex-pit village, now third generation unemployed, but with plenty of spirit. Trade union and socialist experience helped guide the strategy of the campaign from the start.

Privatising exams

By Pat Yarker

English school-students are among the most frequently tested in the world. More than 30 million exam papers are answered each year, and all those SATs, GCSEs, NVQs, AS and A2 exams (and re-takes) have to be paid for. Exam fees, which have doubled in the past four years, are an increasingly-high proportion of a school's or Sixth Form college's spending.

Exam fees come out of public funding for schools and are paid to a "unitary awarding body", commonly known as an exam board. There are three of these in England: OCR, AQA and Edexcel.

OCR and AQA are limited companies run on a not-for-profit basis as "exempt charities". While they do in fact make a profit (of around £90 million each last year), that money is recycled within the exam board to improve the service.

Edexcel, however, has been taken over by Pearson Plc, a multinational publishing and media conglomerate which, under its CEO Marjorie Scardino, has significantly expanded its operations within education services.

In the USA, Pearson is a major text-book publisher, supplier of testing-materials and online test marking services, and has a contract with the Pentagon to train and assess soldiers, sailors and airforce personnel.

In the UK, as well as owning the Financial Times and Penguin Books, Pearson owns Edexcel, which provides exams for the bulk of "vocational" courses. It has recently been awarded the contract to make the SATs run on time after last year's SATs-marking fiasco led the government to set up the National Assessment Agency at a cost of £100 million.

The bulk of that money will go to Pearson Plc in return for inflicting the unnecessary and unwanted SATs on yet another cohort of students.

Details on Pearson Plc's website are a little out-of-date but show: profits up (13% in 2003), invested-capital returns augmented (from 4.6% in 2001 to 6.3% in 2003), and dividends up (from 17.4p per share in 1997 to 24.2p per share in 2003). Pearson Education's operating profit in 2000 was $504 million. By 2003, the operating profit was $620 million, or £313 million. The schools element accounted for about 40% of that figure (£127 million).

Pearson Plc has links with New Labour. The incumbent Chair of Pearson Plc is Lord Stevenson of Coddenham who, as Dennis Stevenson, headed a 1997 commission to examine the role of Information Technology in Schools, and who was (until September 2000) Blair's Special Advisor on the application of ITC to education.

The current push for so-called "personalised learning", founded on the expansion of online "teaching" and assessment, sits perfectly with the plans of Pearson Plc. CEO Scardino is a big fan: "How can you tell if a person is learning or not? You can only tell if you give him a test and see if he answers the questions right. If you couple the data you have on a kid with how he has done on a test, you can figure out what he is learning and not learning." (BusinessWeek Online, 22 January 2001)

Pearson has invested heavily in online assessment technologies, and is looking to become a major provider of online education packages, the tests that go with them, and the services to mark them (ideally 24/7, using the cheapest possible labour worldwide). New Labour's education-policies are giving them a boost.

Public education funding, in the shape of exam fees and set-up costs for the National Assessment Agency, is going into the pockets of shareholders and managers of a private company (whose chair has contributed to Government policy) without any public debate.

Pearson Plc's takeover of an exam board is another sign that the Government is happy to see capitalist values extended within the public education service, and public funds funnelled into private hands.

Who are the sponsors?

Many of the Academy sponsors are individual entrepreneurs, current or retired CEOs of FTSE companies. The lists of people and businesses reflect the degree of New Labour cronyism in public services.

There are people such as Sir Frank Lowe of the Lowe Group, an advertising and communications company, the main sponsor of Willsden Capital City Academy.

Frank Lowe, who is a Labour Party donor, also sponsors a yearly lecture on contemporary architecture. Such connections got top architects Foster and Partners to design the new school building for free. A pro bono, high prestige project for them. A Sirship for Frankie.

Or people such as Alec Reed (CBE) of Reed Executive plc. Reed is author of Capitalism is Dead, Peopleism Rules. Peopleism is touch-feely capitalism, but not so cuddly that it doesn't screw the temporary agency staff Reed farm for fees and commissions.

Then there are religious sponsors, such as the Church Schools Company.

This 100-year-old charity/business has a record of running private fee-paying schools in white, middle-class areas. It first took on Moss Side City Academy in 2002. The Academy replaced a school which the teachers, parents and local people thought did not need replacing. No one listened to them - a new school had to be built and the CSC were the people to run it. CSC is now the biggest single sponsor of Academies, running two more schools in Lambeth and Northampton.

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