“If you liked rail privatisation, you’ll love the Education Bill”: Is Gove gearing up for the privatisation of schools?

6th February 2011

After writing an education white paper called “The Importance of Teaching” predictably little from the first paragraph – all about teacher-training and development translated into the law changes of this week’s Education Bill.  Instead, as I predicted back in November, the Bill focuses on systems – changing accountability and governance structures so that schools increasingly ‘shake off’ the local authority and demands of teacher unions.

The Bill demonstrates this through the many acts that shift power from local authorities to Central Government.  For example, the Secretary of State will now be able to issue a notice to improve and close a school without a visit from OFSTED, there will be no appeal against School Admissions and – most importantly – if a school closes the land will automatically transfer to an Academy or Free School.  Under the Bill, all new schools in an area must be led by academy/free school groups while any schools remaining in local authorities have had their duty to collaborate with the LA abolished, meaning that while the LA must still provide statutory services – e.g. school transport – there is no real requirement on schools to engage with strategies for improving the local area.

If implemented, the Bill effectively does to schools what railway privatisation did to trains in 1993.  Since the mid-90s, the Government has kept control of the railway network but it asks companies to ‘bid’ for permission to run the train services on this network.  This reflects the current trend for the Government to ‘own education’ but ask other groups to ‘run schools’.  In order to gain the right to run a train service, companies undertake a lengthy process where they submit million-word documents showing how they will run every part of a train service, including staffing, maintenance and fare-charging.  It’s a far cry from the thin application one must currently fill in for Free Schools, but is where I expect we will end up if Free Schools continue.  I know about the train bid process, because in 2005 I helped write one; if there’s one thing I know other than education, it’s trains.

The bidding process is intensely thorough. Companies spend months examining the strategic future for the service, and finding innovative ways to improve passenger experience. Less favourably, they also spend a huge amount of money on this process (rather than improving services). But, by the end of the process, they have a detailed plan and a list of measurable targets they will achieve – e.g. 95% punctuality, or 10 extra services on Sundays. If these targets are not being met the operator loses their franchise and the bidding process re-opens.

Using these bids, the Government decides who will run the train service and then they hand over the goods – the carriages, rail access and staff.  The name of the previous company is wiped from the trains, and a new dawn begins.

The powers in the Education Bill absolutely set the stage for this system in England’s schools.  In the future if a school wishes to begin Central Government will decide if an academy ‘application’ (read ‘bid) can have the right to run this.  If any school is found to be ‘eligible for intervention’ on the ‘grounds of performance’ (this is the exact wording of the Bill, Part 5, Sect 24) then a warning can be issued from the Secretary of State  and if the school does not maintain this it will ‘close’ – or, more likely, the land will be passed back to the state who can seek out another ‘operator’.

One major difference is that, as yet, school operators will not be allowed to be profitable organisations.  Free Schools, for example, are being set-up by parents and teachers.  Hence, the Coalition argument will be that this not privatisation but a realisation of the ‘Big Society’ where normal people can seize public goods and drive them strategically in the direction the local community wants.

The question is: Is this model effective?  The answer is far from clear.  Rail privatisation was not a total disaster; train services are at least as effective now as they were previously and customer satisfaction is now reasonably high.  However, expected improvements in customer service, punctuality and reliability and value for money never materialised.  In fact, the chaos of moving to such a system initially caused serious dips in performance and though this has now improved, the money spent on bidding continues to rise even though this money could be more usefully spent improving passenger services.

The second issue is that trains are not children.  Trains don’t know if they are working for a failing company, and don’t mind having one name scrubbed off the side and another one patched on top.  Such experiences are likely to be far more difficult to achieve with children.  But, perhaps, that is for another blog.

Yet, as always, I cling to the optimistic notion that an educational franchising system could work.  Maybe a bidding system will encourage long-term thinking and bring-in more equipped staff.  But, to make this most likely, the Education Bill must be honest, admit that the current shift to academies and Free Schools is a form of privatisation and celebrate the positives of this move. Then, once that’s clear, we can all look at the types of failures that occurred during rail privatisation and maybe – just maybe – we could skip the 15 year dip in performance the transport industry saw and find ourselves in a system with increased performance and satisfaction.