FORUM - ISSN 0963-8253
Volume 46 Number 3 (2004)

Clyde Chitty pages 85-85
DOI: 10.2304/forum.2004.46.3.7


The Privatisation of Education

One of the issues touched upon in the article in this number with the title 'The Illusion of Choice' is that of the creeping privatisation of education in this country. Tony Blair, Alan Milburn, Charles Clarke and John Reid all seem to believe that it matters little who actually delivers education and health, provided there is some evidence of efficiency and economic savings. Yet, quite apart from concerns regarding the erosion of the public service ethos, it hardly seems axiomatic that the involvement of the private sector does mean success, efficiency and public approval. And we surely have a right to be concerned about some of the individuals and companies who benefit from the Government's patronage and largesse.

At the beginning of October 2004, it was confirmed that Britain's biggest out-sourcing company, Capita, had been awarded a £177m five-year contract - the largest in education so far - to manage the Government's twin strategies for improving standards of reading and writing in the country's primary and secondary schools.

In a story carried by The Guardian with the heading 'Capita's school deal under fire' (2 October 2004), the Department for Education and Skills said that, in assuming complete responsibility for the national primary and Key Stage 3 strategies from April 2005, Capita Strategic Education Services would be expected to help ministers hit their targets for literacy and numeracy. (It is interesting to note that primary schools have still not met the levels promised for 2002, an issue on which both David Blunkett and Estelle Morris said they would resign as Education Secretary). The new contract will involve hiring thousands of reading and maths consultants to 'advise' schools and local education authorities on how to deal with 'under-achieving pupils' and how to raise the test scores at ages 11 and 14.

Capita itself has been blamed for the botched introduction of the Criminal Records Bureau - which caused the system for checking the background of new teachers and other staff working with children to break down in the Autumn of 2002 - and for the problematic administration of London's congestion charge in its early days. And the Government seems intent on contracting work out to private sector firms like Capita while the DfES is busy shedding thousands of civil servants' jobs.

Phil Willis, the Liberal Democrat education spokesperson, has said that the award of the new contract also poses issues about conflicts of interest, since Capita is understood to be in the frame as a potential sponsor of a new city academy.

Which brings us neatly to what is probably the most controversial policy in the Government's recently-published Five-Year Strategy for Children and Learners: the proposed rapid expansion of the city academy programme. It is intended that the number of such academies - 17 in September 2004 - will have increased to 200 by the year 2010. This is, of course, all part of New Labour's project for enhancing choice, diversity and customer satisfaction in the secondary sector.

Writing in The Guardian on the 9 July 2004, Francis Beckett pointed out that the Government's new big idea for education in the form of the city academy has turned out to be the one that the Conservatives invented 18 years ago and then abandoned as a failure shortly afterwards. It is even run by the same man: Cyril Taylor, the entrepreneur appointed by the Thatcher Government in 1986 to create 30 City Technology Colleges.

New Labour has not made the Conservatives' mistake of asking for too much money from the schools' putative sponsors, settling on a figure of around £2m. For this relatively small sum of money, less than a fifth of the initial cost, the business virtually owns the school and acquires the right to put its name and logo on the signboard at the school entrance. It can decide which specialism the school chooses to adopt, and, within the increasingly flexible timetable imposed by the National Curriculum, which subjects are to be taught to older students. It can even impose a particular ideological slant on aspects of the teaching.

In the schools controlled by Sir Peter Vardy, an evangelical Christian who believes in creationism, Darwinism is taught not as a science, but as just one theory (undoubtedly misguided) of the way the world came into being. It was reported in The Times on the 24 July 2004 that this 'millionaire' car dealer had arranged for a document entitled Christianity and Curriculum to be available on the website of Emmanuel College in Gateshead which suggested, among other things, that Britain could have been saved from an invasion by Adolf Hitler in the Second World War by an act of God. This document emphasised the importance of using 'a frame of reference in which God is sovereign' when teaching history, going on to say that: 'in this context, it becomes important to consider why Hitler paused at the English Channel in 1940 before embarking on an invasion of Britain. Could it be that God was calling a halt to this march of evil?'

Sir Peter Vardy was one of the affluent individuals featured in a front-page article in The Independent of the 8 July 2004 headed: 'Should these people be running state schools?' Others included: Graham Able, the headteacher of Dulwich College in south London, charging fees of up to £20,000 a year; Sir Frank Lowe, the agent for such leading sports stars as Anna Kournikova, Mark Philippousis and Gareth Southgate; and Peter Sutherland, Head of the global investment bank Goldman Sachs. All these individuals seem likely to be running one or more city academies by the end of the decade. The question posed by The Independent surely deserves an answer; though it is difficult to see how the Government's policy can be described as anything other than indefensible.

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To cite this article
Clyde Chitty (2004) Editorial, FORUM, 46(3), 85-85. https://doi.org/10.2304/forum.2004.46.3.7

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