Support `grows' for state schools to charge fees

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The Independent Online
ALMOST ONE person in five thinks the Government should consider allowing state schools to charge fees, says a report that shows a shift away from the idea of free state education.

The London Oratory School recently provoked controversy when it asked parents, including the Prime Minister, for up to pounds 30 a month per child.

As the privatisation of education gathers pace, with the Government encouraging private firms to intervene in schools and local councils, the research shows half of adults believe businesses should be involved in running schools.

The survey of 1,000 adults by NOP Solutions for Market Assessment International, a market research company, forms part of a report into business involvement in education. The report, Private Sector Opportunities in Education 1999, explains how companies can make money out of the pounds 24.3bn schools will be spending by 2003. It concludes: "Direct management of state schools is a more promising avenue than it seemed even two years ago because the drawbacks of capital underfunding are being reduced by the Government's pounds 5.4bn support programme."

Training teachers, supplying temporary teachers, IT, books and equipment, managing buildings and facilities are also prom-ising opportunities, says the report. It points out that pounds 1,000 invested in shares with a basket of education firms in January 1996 had risen to pounds 1,593 by January 1999 - about pounds 150 higher than the average for all shares.

The survey found that one in three people opposed extra tax to improve education, and seven out of eight would not agree to an extra tax burden of more than pounds 5 a week. However, almost nine out of ten said the Government should spend more on education. One person in four agreed strongly that teachers' salaries were too low; another one in five agreed slightly. More than one-third thought teachers were paid adequately.

Eighteen per cent of those questioned agreed either strongly or slightly that the Government should consider allowing state schools to charge fees - "a radical departure from the century-old view that education costs should be funded out of taxation". Three-quarters said they disagreed.

"The powerful lobby against profit from educating children which assumes that parents are likely to object to companies making profits from educating their children," may be wrong, the report suggests.

And it attributes the rapid advance of privatisation to the Labour government. "One of the oddest features of the advance of private money into education is the role of the Labour government in bringing about such dramatic change. The last Conservative administration merely tinkered at the edges of state fund-raising, not daring to question the concept of free education ... It seems strange to remember that Margaret Thatcher was pilloried just for withdrawing free school milk."

John Bangs, head of education at the National Union of Teachers, said there was no evidence that parents wanted the private sector to run schools. "The top priority for parents is to know their children will be happy and learning. They do not want the uncertainty of privatisation," he said.

The Government's failure to persuade companies to run education action zones showed that business was not interested. Privatisation in America had damaged teacher morale and relationships between parents and teachers, he said.

t Private Sector Opportunities in Education 1999 is available from Market Assessment International on 0181-481 8715, priced pounds 650