Conor Ryan: Don't panic: the private sector will help only a handful of schools

'No one expects more than a couple of dozen schools to be privately managed by the next election'

Tuesday 04 September 2001 00:00

Tomorrow's schools White Paper looks set to make much of private sector involvement in schools. Much hype will follow minor changes in governance so that firms can take over the management of failing schools. The teaching unions are already playing their part by denouncing "privatisation". At Brighton later this month, Labour activists will add their anger. The public will know that New Labour has retained its novelty yet the measures that might deliver real results could well be obscured.

Labour made its pledge to improve public services a winning election issue. So, this term, Labour must not only deliver on that promise, but be seen to do so. However, Tony Blair has too often been more concerned with defining an issue than delivering outcomes on the ground. And delivery is now much more important than definition for its own sake.

When the Schools Green Paper was published in February, Alastair Campbell declared the end of the "bog-standard comprehensive." His briefing certainly gave specialist schools a higher profile. It was a good result in the Westminster village but most parents (even though they didn't share Roy Hattersley's enthusiasm for the mixed-ability comprehensive) were left bemused about what it all meant. This week, the Government must not repeat that mistake.

In Opposition, Labour needed to define itself in education. Ideological baggage including opposition to tests and performance tables had to go. Raising standards became the key objective and teaching unions were no longer mollycoddled. In its first term, this approach helped to deliver primary school reform.

While the unions said there were "too many initiatives", most announcements in the Government's first year were about elements of the literacy and numeracy drive. The public saw the difference by the election – and education was a winning issue for Labour. But they saw that difference because 18,000 primary schools had improved their teaching. Delivery was not just another statistic; it was a reality.

Labour no longer needs to prove that it is not in hock to the "education establishment." It is visibly more parent-friendly than the Liberal Democrats, whose policies seem to be written by the National Union of Teachers. There is also little to fear from either of the Tory leadership contenders who agree "the public services" matter but have nothing of substance to offer in improving state schools.

And several important secondary school reforms are already making a difference. Excellence in Cities, an urban reform programme in 1,000 schools, has mixed mentoring, help with discipline and extra support for able children to produce better than average improvements in GCSE results. Despite the controversy about a "two-tier" system, specialist schools are showing remarkably better results than other comprehensives. This week, 11 to 14-year-olds in England will also experience new lessons in English and Maths as the primary literacy and numeracy strategies are adapted for secondary pupils. Science and computer lessons will be overhauled too and secondary schools will have targets as challenging as their primary neighbours. It is obviously right that test results for our 14-year-olds should also be published, as the Education Secretary Estelle Morris announced on Sunday. These three initiatives have improved results in their pilots or early stages.

Were the Government to make them as important in this term as the 3Rs were in the last one – alongside proposals to enable schools to become "dawn to dusk" centres, offering crèches and other community facilities – there is a real prospect that they could achieve the same gains both in delivery and visibility.

Unfortunately, despite some belated recognition in government circles of its limitations, it is still likely that the focus tomorrow will be on the private sector and its involvement.

There should be no ideological hang-ups about this. By all accounts, the Kings' College in Guildford (formerly the failing Kings Manor School) has benefited greatly from being managed by the 3Es, a company set up by a successful Solihull City Technology College. It may be that private firms or charities can help manage other schools too.

But even the most optimistic of the education firms doubts that more than a couple of dozen schools will be privately managed by the next election. Most parents are unlikely to notice any difference in their local schools. Indeed far more failing schools are likely to be turned around by other successful schools.

There is another problem too. When Labour got tough on failing schools, the approach had two elements. Schools were set a two-year deadline to improve or close. With extra resources, more than 750 of them were turned around. But the policy became defined by the "Fresh Start", an attempt to keep some of the worst failing schools open with new management but the same pupils. Inevitably, this failed for some. None could have been expected to see GCSE results greatly improve within a couple of years for pupils who had been failed previously. The result was that 25 Fresh Start schools became emblematic of Labour's "failure" to tackle failing schools and the 700-plus successes were largely ignored.

The Government faces a similar danger with privately managed schools. They could both obscure the success of the less headline-grabbing programmes affecting most English secondary schools. And each school will be scrutinised daily for the slightest weakness. It would be surprising if dramatic GCSE improvements occurred in their first year or two. The media will then declare the project another failure.

So, it would be a mistake to elevate an essentially pragmatic attempt to address the deep-seated failures of a small number of schools into the defining element of Labour's education programme, just as it is in health or transport. Private or not-for-profit firms should be used where they work and greater flexibilities should enable them to do their job. But, by confusing definition with delivery, the Government is in real danger of obscuring far more important reforms that really could transform secondary schools.

The writer was special adviser to David Blunkett from 1993 to 2001

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