The question as to which public services could or should be delivered by the private sector provokes some of Britain’s most vociferous political debates. So it is no surprise that the Education Secretary’s inclination to allow academies and free schools to be run by for-profit companies for the first time is raising hackles.
The move would certainly have far-reaching consequences. Enabling schools not just to turn a profit but also to raise funds against their assets (including land once owned by the state) would be a fundamental change to the dynamics of the system. Market-sceptics are already crying havoc. Yet, in education, as elsewhere, the focus must be on the quality of the service, not the mechanism by which it is provided.
Ideology aside, there is a case for liberating schools from the not-for-profit straitjacket. After all, the private sector has a proven ability to innovate and there is no compelling reason that such dynamism should not be harnessed by the education sector, too.
There is also a practical consideration here. Michael Gove hopes that all Britain’s state-run institutions will ultimately become academies, and he has similarly expansive hopes for the free school programme. But the Education Secretary will struggle to turn his vision into reality without the profit incentive to pull in large private sector school chains once the capacity of charities, philanthropists and get-up-and-go parents has been exhausted.
Finally, even the basic objection that for-profit schools will see taxpayers’ money land in private pockets does not stand up to scrutiny. Pupils receiving a better education, for the same cost to the public purse, means better value for government money. A sliver – even a slice – to the facilitators is cheap at the price.
So far, so good. But opponents are not wrong in pointing out the many potential pitfalls. The risks of rapacious capitalists cutting corners, bilking the state or racking up unaffordable debts are very real. If schools are to make profits, then, it is incumbent upon the Government to establish a water-tight regulatory regime to monitor both educational standards and financial probity.
There are also fiendish contractual obstacles to be overcome. Mr Gove’s plan will go nowhere without a workable method for cancelling a contract if the institution is under-performing. Such agreements have proved tricky enough in the context of IT systems and train franchises; how much more so when the education of hundreds of children will be on hold in the event of a problem?
The spectre of a modern-day, taxpayer-funded Dotheboys Hall blighting young lives and costing untold millions to shut down is certainly an alarming one. But the possibility that such dangers can be contained by careful contracting and a well-trained watchdog must at least be entertained.
There is another hazard, though, that is – in the short term, at least – the greatest of all. And that is Mr Gove himself. If the knee-jerk rejection of profits in public services is wrong-headed, the blind assumption that money-making schools are an untrammelled good is equally so. So great a shift, and one so fraught with difficulties, should proceed only at the most measured pace – with no conclusion foregone and a U-turn never ruled out. In this regard, the Education Secretary’s tendency for zealotry can only be cause for concern.
Worse still is that Mr Gove’s department denies such plans are under consideration at all. Much might be gained from allowing for-profit organisations to run British schools. Much would also be risked. With so much at stake, we need open debate, not clandestine politics.