The Conservatives are under pressure to say whether they will allow state schools to be run for profit, after the new Education Secretary left the door open to the idea.
Labour and teaching unions attacked Nicky Morgan after she said that allowing schools to be set up by profit-making companies would need to be thought about “very carefully”.
She told a TES webchat: “I think we are very clear and that the sector is very clear about the importance of not for profit. [For profit] is something I’m happy to have lots of further advice and emails on. I suspect that most people may not be very keen on it, but it’s something… well, you’d have to think very carefully.”
Allowing firms to run schools for profit is seen by some Conservatives as a logical extension of their academy and free school programmes. Michael Gove, who was Education Secretary until July, has said he has “no ideological objection”. The Liberal Democrats claim they stopped the Tories from pursuing the idea.
The Tories will now be challenged by Labour and unions over whether they would allow “schools for profit” if they win next May’s general election.
Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), said: "We are totally opposed to schools and colleges being run for profit. Taxpayers’ money should go to support the learning and aspirations of our children, not into the bank accounts of those who seek to make a quick profit or bleed the system dry."
Tristram Hunt, the shadow Education Secretary, said: "Nicky Morgan has let the cat out of the bag, and parents will be alarmed that Conservative ministers are motivated not by improving the learning outcomes for all children, but by the prospect of using state schools to generate dividends for shareholders.
He added: "Labour is unequivocal in its rejection of the profit schools model that has done so much damage to education standards and raise inequality elsewhere. Nicky Morgan's refusal to rule letting companies make a profit out of our children's education reveals the true intentions that lie behind Cameron's programme for a second term in office.”
A Department for Education spokesman said: “This is a complete distortion of what the Secretary of State said. She was very clear that there is a consensus around the not-for-profit model that is important and that has served the sector very well.
“As part of an open exchange with this audience of teachers she did say that she would be happy to hear from them if they wanted to make the case, but there are absolutely no plans on the Government's part to move to a 'for profit' model and it would be untrue to say otherwise.”