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Issue 37, April 1999

The education business

New Labour's election promise to 'prioritise education' should have read, privatise education. BOB SULATYCKI, secretary of the Kensington and Chelsea National Union of Teachers, explains the government's sell-off plans.

IT STARTED WITH the first state school in Britain, King's Manor in Surrey, being turned over to a private commercial interest. Next, in Hackney, steps were taken to remove education from local authority control and into private hands. While these examples demonstrated New Labour's fawning commitment to the market, they are as nothing compared to the wide-ranging agenda that threatens the effective privatisation of the school system in Britain. The government hopes to achieve this through the Education Action Zones (EAZs) and the Private Finance Initiative (PFI).

The direct involvement of business in schools was a central tenet of the Tories, although in practice their 'achievements' were somewhat modest. Certainly, private schools flourished and many services, such as catering and the inspectorate, were privatised. The recent growth of private teacher agencies is an example of the huge profits to be made from the exploitation of teachers. However, apart from the City Technology College and nursery voucher experiments, there was little fundamental movement in the control of schools from the public to the private sector. EAZs and PFI are intended to achieve just that.

Developments in the UK have slavishly followed what is happening in the US, where education companies are mushrooming. Michael Milken, the junk-bond king who once earned $500m in a single year, is moving into the very lucrative 'human-capital' market of pre-school education. Others, such as Sylvan Learning Systems, have made their fortune through training, tuition and testing. They are now moving into what is potentially a far bigger market - the running of state schools.

  And these companies are now extending their interests across the Atlantic with the support of New Labour. The idea of private companies running schools also wins the fulsome backing of the free-marketeers at The Economist: "Such schemes free education from the stifling grip of teaching unions and bureaucrats. Not only will that cut costs. It will bring stability to staffing, making it easier to sack bad teachers and keep good ones". (16 January 1999)

In England and Wales, EAZs have been set up as 'test-beds for innovation in deprived areas'. However, rather than trying to end deprivation, New Labour are getting rid of any democratic accountability - groups of schools will be taken out of Local Education Authority (LEA) control and run by other agencies, including private companies.

There is more money available to EAZ schools - the carrot that entices some parents and staff to accept the idea - but the amounts are very small. In Blackburn EAZ, for example, every school has gained one computer-linked white board - worth £8,000 each.

So far, 25 EAZs have been established but the government has been disappointed with the lack of radical change. The rules have therefore been changed for the second-round bids being processed now. The changes will ensure much less LEA involvement and much more 'innovation'.

EAZs promise significant elements of deregulation. National teachers' pay and conditions arrangements no longer apply, meaning a longer working day, less holidays, more performance related pay, etc. And it replaces the national curriculum with one which emphasises basic skills and is more work-related. It is, in effect, a second-class vocational curriculum geared to producing a pliant and flexible workforce for business. Nick Tate, Chief Executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, expressed this in The Times Educational Supplement (26 June 1998): "Business needs to help us to revise the national curriculum so that it meets the needs of a rapidly changing economy. Business needs to tell us what qualities it is looking for in the young people pursuing qualifications in schools and colleges. Above all, business needs to be the dominant voice in the development of vocational qualifications".

  EAZs will allow private companies unprecedented, direct influence over what is taught in the schools over which they have authority. For example, Shell is a partner in Lambeth EAZ. It is easy to envisage a situation where the Development Studies syllabus - where the role of multinationals in the developing countries is examined - might be inconsistent with Shell's corporate objectives. McDonalds are a partner in Weston-Super-Mare EAZ. Might they not have an interest in both the Geography and Food Technology curriculum?

Many companies' involvement in EAZs is much more directly linked to profit. Many hope that further privatisation will allow ever greater opportunities - the key is getting a foot in the door now.

The firms involved in EAZs include a large number of information technology (IT) companies, including BT, Bull Information Services, Research Machines, IBM and ICL. Richard Hatcher, from the University of Central England's Faculty of Education, has argued that these companies recognise the huge potential for profits if IT was used to replace teachers. And, as chance would have it, New Labour's Green Paper on Teachers' Pay presents exactly this vision.

Margaret Hodge, DfEE minister, said: "We should be thinking of employing fewer teachers, not more. Over the next few years information technology will revolutionise our schools. Distance learning is about to become a reality… children will be able to follow programmes which are more closely tailored to their individual needs and the use of interactive software could replace more formal lessons. In a few years, I believe, some classes will not be led by a fully trained teacher… If pupils are working from lessons on the Internet, a trained classroom assistant may be as useful as a teacher". (New Statesman, 22 May 1998) James Tooley, who doubles as a government advisor and a representative of the US company Edison, wrote in his book, Education Without the State: "Instead of one teacher for 30 students, why not have one teacher for 60 students, with technology substituted for the absent teacher? For each teacher lost, £25,000 per year (a typical teacher's salary) would be saved. Over a four-year period, this £100,000 would purchase 30 multimedia systems and software (at £1,000 each), and one teaching assistant (at £10,000 per year) and still leave £30,000 in savings!"

It is shocking, but unfortunately not surprising, that the leaders of the teaching unions continue to reject a strategy of outright opposition to EAZs (despite this being the policy of the NUT as decided at its 1998 conference). In Oxfordshire the NUT even presented itself as a partner in the EAZ bid, that is, until local union members found out what was being proposed in their name and put a stop to it.

  The other arm of privatisation comes from PFI. Originally set up by the Tories, PFI has now been extended to many public sector capital projects, and has been promoted by New Labour as a Third Way solution to the huge problems of renovating and repairing the dilapidated school stock. But the PFI at Colfox School, Dorset, is a 30-year contract worth £22m to the construction company, Jarvis, even though the capital value of the project is only around £15m. Councils will become increasingly committed to paying for PFI projects for years to come, at the expense of the other services and schools for which they are responsible.

Three PFI deals for schools in England have been signed, but another 30 are imminent with an estimated total value of between £800-£920m. In Scotland a £330m PFI programme for schools was announced in December. In the medium term, it is probable that PFI will be extended from financing buildings and support services, to providing core services. The PFI consortia will become increasingly powerful and subject to merger, creating massive private interests rapaciously maximising profits.

Through PFIs and EAZs big business will eventually gain control of schools - the buildings, staff and curriculum. David Blunkett has said that private companies will not make a profit from their involvement in EAZs, but that they could be expected to get a return. When pressed to explain this contradiction on the radio programme, File on Four, he said that a profit was a profit and a return was a return. He can call it by whatever name he chooses, the reality is that business is concerned with making money - and its interests are inimical to those of public education.

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