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For-profit state schools have some attractions, but they’d be politically toxic

A move into for-profit education would be a big political gamble for Cameron. David Bebber/The Times/PA Archive

The latter days of Michael Gove’s time at the Department for Education were dominated by the Trojan Horse extremism plot in Birmingham. But in his four years as secretary of state, there were recurring suggestions that Gove was doing his own plotting. By this account, free schools would be the “Trojan Horse” through which profit-making companies could run state schools.

To the disappointment of the conspiracy theorists I suppose, I never saw any such plans – secret or otherwise – while I served as Gove’s permanent secretary. Nor have I seen anything to suggest otherwise since I left the Department for Education in 2012.

Gove’s comments to the Leveson inquiry in 2012 that he had an “open mind” about allowing profit-makers to run free schools have been held up by his numerous critics as proof of his intent. What is less reported is his immediate caveat: “I apply one test [to profit-making]: are we improving education overall and improving the lives of the poorest most of all?”

Gove’s position was reflected by his successor Nicky Morgan, who in a webchat with teachers refused to rule out for-profit schools under a future Tory government – while also observing that “most people may not be very keen” on the idea.

Yet on the surface, it is difficult to have a principled moral objection to making a profit from state education, and I say that as one whose whole personal and family experience has been of state schools. Many aspects of operating schools can be, and are, already outsourced to the private sector – supply teachers, catering, special needs support, textbooks and IT.

Furthermore, the private sector could leverage capital to allow schools to expand quickly to meet demand. After all, the state cannot afford to create and maintain hundreds of thousands of surplus places, in the off-chance that demand might increase in time.

But any suggestion that the “core” activities of state schools – teaching and leadership principally – might be privatised would provoke a visceral reaction. Yet the suspicion lingers that the Conservative party may be tempted in this direction the other side of an election. This is despite the apparent “play safe” policy that the recent change of secretary of state appeared to represent.

So with no moral objections that make consistent sense and the bracing ideological attractions of exploring privatisation’s next frontiers, why would a major commitment to profit-making schools be such a bad idea?

Evidence in short supply

First, there is little conclusive evidence yet that commercial operators in Sweden, Chile and the US are universally more effective in running government-funded schools. No robust models have been established for whether profit-making would meet demand for good school places; be commercially viable; create better choice; increase competition; or raise standards. These remain inconvenient truths for the disciples of privatisation.

Second, English schools are rooted in a different private sector – the private charitable sector. The move to universal education was promoted through organised religion. As a result, the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church run thousands of schools in a decidedly non-profit making manner.

It is often forgotten by right-of-centre ideologues that the academies programme was built on private philanthropy. It was the brilliant insight of Lord Adonis and others that many wealthy people wanted to “give back” to education in a way that went well beyond providing expensive new facilities in independent schools. In its own way, the coalition government has enhanced public sector philanthropy through headteachers, teachers and charitable trusts building federations – all fired by moral purpose, not profit.

Third, any move to privatise state schools could let other education providers off the hook. Local authorities may have a different role to that which they occupied historically when it came to “their” schools. But every locality needs strong schools. High-quality education should remain at the heart of the civic mission, something that progressive mayors and councils around the country recognise.

Independent schools, universities and further education colleges all have a contribution to make. Their willingness to act as equal partners to state schools, assisting them in their mission, is likely to be much more popular than for-profit providers who retain an image problem when it comes to education.

Not a vote-winner

This goes to the heart of the complex, nuanced British psyche when it comes to choice in education. Research from the London School of Economics and British Social Attitudes in recent years shows that while parents value choice when it comes to where their children are educated, they balance that up against the impact on others. Values seem to matter.

Those values continue to influence parental views on school reform. We will argue for years to come on the impact of the Gove-led changes, but it is undoubtedly the case that increasing public unease was causing problems for the government. Against such a backdrop, it has hard to believe that the introduction of profit-making state schools would be a vote-winner.

Capitalism may not be in crisis, but Labour’s pointed attacks on how it is working are striking a chord. In such a climate, allowing taxpayers’ money for the basic provision of education to go to shareholders will be a very tough political sell.

State education may have a bit to do before it becomes an NHS-like national religion. But relentless attacks on it, with for-profit schools as the answer, go down much worse than many politicians and commentators seem to think. Too often, they speak with little, if any, direct experience of state education, unlike the vast majority of their fellow citizens.

Not going the way of the NHS

Does this mean that state education will forever be barred to for-profit providers? For the time being, yes. Despite what I have written above, that may be a pity. The NHS has shown over the past decade that there is a role for the private sector in delivering core public services. Despite controversy and resistance from some quarters, many people seem to accept that this makes good sense. But that is very far from saying that wholesale marketisation would be acceptable, something that its advocates often fail to understand.

In education, small-scale interventions may be the way forward and an opportunity for the private sector to demonstrate that it can fill the gap where the state has failed. Alternatively, if there are limits to expansion capacity within the publicly funded system then, again, the private sector may be able to support in a complementary manner. What works is often what is best.

Labour’s 1997 mantra of “standards not structures” may have been overly simple in that structures do play a part – a point that Tony Blair came to realise. But slick slogan though it was, it pointed to an essential truth and one which Labour has recognised once again. If we want to improve our education system, then what happens in classrooms and schools is much more important than what goes on in the fevered imagination of policy wonks.

This article is part of series on for-profit education. Read the other articles in the series here.

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