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Friday, 25 May, 2001, 23:14 GMT 00:14 UK
Is this school privatisation?
By education correspondent Mike Baker
Is it - or is it not - privatisation? If private sector companies get involved in running schools does that amount to privatisation of our public education service?
After 7 June we are likely to see a step change in the involvement of private companies running schools and hospitals.
But this is not privatisation as we have known it in the past. Schools and hospitals are not being sold off as the railways and public utilities were by Mrs Thatcher's Conservative government.
No-one has yet suggested that your local secondary school should be sold to the highest bidder and floated on the stock market as "Bog Standard Comprehensive plc". Though, of course, the marketing department would soon change that name to "Specialist Academy plc".
Free to parents
No, the change that is being proposed is more subtle and more interesting. To coin a well-worn phrase, it is a "third way" lying somewhere between, in the left corner, a 100% publicly-owned and publicly-run service and, in the right corner, a purely commercial operation.
The model that interests both Labour and the Conservatives involves private sector management of schools which remain free to parents and subject to ultimate democratic accountability.
The Conservatives would allow companies to open new schools, or take over the running of existing schools, within the public education system.
Of the major parties in England, only the Liberal Democrats shun the private sector.
But while the national political parties are just talking about all this, Conservative-run Surrey County Council has been putting it into action.
This week, as exclusively revealed by BBC News Online, a contract was agreed for Abbeylands comprehensive school in Addlestone to be managed by a profit-making, listed company, Nord Anglia plc.
The school, while showing some improvements in standards, has been struggling for some years to recruit enough pupils and is only around two-thirds full. Meanwhile local parents are queuing up to get into oversubscribed schools nearby.
So Nord Anglia has been awarded a seven-year contract to try to make the school popular and successful. On top of its undisclosed management fee it will receive performance bonuses based on its success in raising pupil numbers, improving discipline and attendance, and boosting exam scores.
To return to the original question, is this privatisation? Nord Anglia will, if it succeeds, make a profit from managing the school. As a stock market listed company that is its function - to make profits.
But the source of these profits is public money, already earmarked for education spending, which some might argue should be going into books and equipment not into shareholders' dividends.
Thus far, this looks like privatisation. However consider the ways in which Abbeylands remains very different from, for example, the private school that is its near neighbour in this part of Surrey.
Most significantly, Abbeylands remains free to pupils as its running costs continue to be provided by Surrey County Council. Nord Anglia may change aspects of the school but, unlike its independent sector neighbour, it must still abide by the laws that govern state schools.
The school's assets remain in public hands and the school's governing body, made up of parent-elected representatives, still makes the final decisions. When Nord Anglia's contract runs out, it is up to Surrey County Council whether or not to renew it.
Nord Anglia will not be in the position of, say, one of the privatised railway companies. It cannot close down its campus and move it to a more profitable location. It cannot charge its customers more and it cannot reduce its services.
Nor can Nord Anglia afford to ignore the wishes of local parents. If it does and parents shun the school, then the company will suffer financial penalties through its performance-related contract.
This is largely uncharted territory. Some believe the perils are too great. What happens, they say, if the company loses interest in the project or finds it cannot make money? Schools are not like other businesses - you cannot just close them down or switch your production to another, more profitable, product.
Yet no-one is suggesting a wholesale shift to a new, privately-managed school system. The Labour Party, the Tories and Surrey council see this as an experiment which is worth trying where other methods have failed. Surrey insists the only other option for the under-subscribed Abbeylands was closure.
The parents and the existing governors want to give the new venture a go. They insist it is a "partnership" not a take-over. For them it was an easy choice between closure and a radical experiment.
Many other parents and schools may be able to make the same choice after the election.
Mike Baker welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org although he cannot always answer individual e-mails.
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