Who wants to get their hands on our schools? And what do they want to do with them?
By Mike Baker
BBC News education correspondent
This week, MPs will vote on plans to allow businesses, charities and faith groups to take over the running of the proposed new "trust" schools.
The idea is that one or more existing schools would enter a partnership with an outside body to form a trust, which would then create a new ethos for that school, as well as controlling its admissions, staffing, and assets.
The government believes this will stimulate innovation, energise management, and engender a positive, can-do ethos in state schools.
So far, most of the media coverage of the Education Bill has focused on the size of the rebellion by Labour MPs. But the more basic question is this: Who will run our schools if this legislation goes through?
So which organisations are waiting in the wings to develop trust schools? At Downing Street this week, the prime minister produced four of them: the computer company, Microsoft; the accountancy firm, KPMG; the livery company, Mercers'; and the educational charity, Edge.
What was their vision for schools? And what did they expect to get out of it for themselves?
The Mercers' company, which has existed since 1394, insisted it would be in education for the long term.
Its spokesman at the Downing Street seminar, Charles Parker, said its approach would be "enlightened private sponsorship". It already has involvement with 16 schools in the state and private sector but wants to extend that.
One of his comments might have seemed rather ominous for anyone concerned about the influence that outside organisations could wield over schools.
Noting that the Mercers' Company puts about £3.5 million into schools each year, he said: "People do pay attention if you have a bit of cash".
So if the Mercers' were not an ancient livery company but a small, evangelical faith group, what sort of tune might they be trying to call?
However, the Mercers' Company is a charity with no particular business interests or philosophy to promote other than philanthropy.
Mind you, it is not democratically accountable to the local voters in the areas where it might run schools.
Tobacco and Big Macs?
But what about a big commercial company like Microsoft? According to its spokesman, Stephen Uden, Microsoft also wants to be involved in education "in the long term". It already sponsors a large number of specialist schools but insists it wants to help, not to "control or run" schools.
So what would Microsoft get out of it? Uden said the main aim would be to contribute towards overcoming the skills shortage, in particular trying to get more young women into computing.
So, if Microsoft is not looking to sell its computers to schools or to persuade pupils of the advantages of its operating systems, what about KPMG? Does it want to put accountancy onto the curriculum?
According to Paul Lawrence, who represented the firm at the Downing Street gathering, the motivation for KPMG is an altruistic desire to improve the skills shortage in the UK, which he described as "terrifying".
He was the only one to admit to a "selfish" motivation too: the firm finds that the involvement of its staff in educational projects is good for motivation and retention. This, of course, was the carefully rehearsed and positive side of business involvement in schools.
Would a tobacco company be acceptable? What about a big fast-food brand taking over a school? Or a company that did not recognise trade unions?
The prime minister's response to this was to say that the proposed new schools commissioner would be a filter, deciding which outside organisations were suitable to be school partners.
Mr Blair added that he had "not come across the Big Mac Academy concept".
The prime minister's view is that critics of the changes always conjure up hypothetical extremes but that if people listened to companies like Microsoft or KPMG they would find it reassuring.
However, the very fact that Downing Street invited the media to meet these potential trust sponsor shows they know they still have a big selling job to do.
There was also a distinct change in the prime minister's rhetoric. Six months ago, launching the school reforms, Mr Blair talked about "pivotal" change.
This week he described it as "evolutionary" progress, recognising the reality that schools already have links with outside organisations and that the initial uptake for trust status could be quite slow.
The other change emerging from the political process is the emphasis on collaboration rather than competition between schools.
Many supporters of trust schools now argue that it would be best if trusts were formed from groups of schools, not individual schools standing alone.
One of the key concerns of the rebel Labour MPs has been that an elite group of schools will emerge from this new diverse and competitive market. So, perhaps they would be reassured if the Education Bill were changed to require trusts to consist of a minimum of two or more schools.
Asked about this possibility, the prime minister conceded that federations of two or more schools might be popular and "could even be the majority" of trusts.
However, he insisted he did not want to limit the options available.
Making this sort of change would perhaps bring round more of the rebels.
For now, though, the government appears to see no need to make further concessions to them - until, that is, they see just how many Labour MPs are really prepared to vote against their own government.
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