Profit-Making State Schools: Why this is a terrible idea. (Part 1)

Gove’s education reforms, in particular his expansion of the academies programme and the launch of free schools, are moving inexorably to the moment where companies will be encouraged to run schools for profit. Gove let slip at the Leveson enquiry that he would be happy to see Free Schools make a profit in the second term of a Conservative administration and Think Tanks such as Policy Exchange have been agitating for quite a while to let providers make a profit from state education. A recent posting on this site  ( called for the ‘profit motive’ to be allowed into education so that the ‘disgraceful situation’ of only 7% of state educated people getting top jobs could be remedied.

Education is now being ‘worked-over’ in a classic neo-liberal pincer movement with the end game being the state allowing companies to take tax-payer money for providing a service, and extract a profit from this.  The first part of the pincer movement is to comprehensively rubbish the existing state run system. Gove has been working hard at this from his time as shadow education secretary to the present day. He frequently cites the International PISA studies and England’s position in them. He relishes statistic showing Britain has plummeted down the league tables for Maths, Science and Literacy like a football pundit commentating on a team’s slide from Premiership dominance to 2nd division obscurity.  The media have followed Gove’s lead and the general perception is created that schools are failing, that students leave with limited literacy, no understanding of science and mathematical skills equal to the average South Korean child at the age of just 6.

How uncomfortable it is, then, when the very same international comparative measures show a different story.  The company Pearson conducted a meta-analysis of the international comparative measures (such as PISA, TIMMS and PIRLS) and found that the UK came 6th in the league table of education systems in the developed world ( The combined school systems of England, Wales and Scotland beat the Netherlands (7), and beat Germany (15), and Sweden, the model for Gove’s free schools did not even figure in the top 20. Finland was the only European country to beat the UK, the other 4 countries were those Asian countries which always do well (Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea) largely as a result of the extremely high intrinsic value placed upon education culturally.  This composite did merge the English, Scottish, and Welsh systems into one but English schools are the largest proportion, and the Scottish and Welsh performance is very close to the English number.

The conclusion is quite clear, the crisis in education we are constantly being told about is a construct, a convenient fiction, or a downright lie (take your pick). If the advocates of profit-making schools confronted reality, then they would have to admit that, whilst not quite world-beating, the schools in the UK are well above average and better than countries such as Germany so often held up as shining examples of economic prosperity and productivity.  Of course the doom-sayers can always come back and say the measures used in this analysis are not the right ones and they paint a far rosier picture than is really the case, but Gove can’t have his cake here and eat it.  He constantly used PISA scores to denigrate the system and convince people of the need for reform, so he’ll have to swallow it when the same measures show that things are not as bleak as he paints. This is clearly a case of PIRLS before swine.

The second part of the neo-liberal pincer movement is to stress how much more efficient private enterprise would be running state schools. The argument here is that the state is a bloated, slow-moving dinosaur, unable to innovate or act quickly, whereas companies bring new thinking, new methods and can implement these rapidly and effectively. The motivation of a profit to be had at the end of the quarter focuses the company ruthlessly on results and outcomes, and the juicy lure of the bonus gives the organisation a hunger and desire which the dead-hand of the state could never have.

Well if this is the case, and if it is going to apply to schools, then the neo-liberals have some more explaining to do, concerning the liberalisation of the rail network in the UK and the privatisation of energy supply. The bracing winds of the liberalised market were allowed to blow through energy and rail during the 1980s and 1990s, so these are hardly new reforms and have had a lot of time to bed in.  By now, if the logic of the neo-liberals held true, then competition in the energy market should have delivered world-beating service and low prices to UK consumers for electricity and gas and a constant stream of new innovations.  And likewise the rail network in the UK should be one of the most efficient in the developed world delivering great value for the traveller and clean uncrowded trains running exactly to time. The reality is once again very different. The UK energy market is confusing for the domestic consumer with an abundance of tariffs making best value very difficult to assess. In fact the failure of the market to deliver value for the customer has been a source of embarrassment for politicians, most notably David Cameron who promised legislation to force companies to put home-owners on the best possible tariff, but then had to backtrack on this when it turned out to be unworkable ( .  On top of this, the big 6 energy companies are currently being investigated for what looks like a massive and cynical (even criminal), market rigging exercise ( The consumer was promised a competitive market; but neo-liberalism has delivered a cartel.

Rail it seems has done no better from the neo-liberal experiment, UK fares are among the most expensive in Europe (popular commuter routes are sometimes 3x more expensive than comparative German or French routes), trains are crowded and dirty and the tax-payer subsidy for the network is much larger than countries which have retained public ownership of rail. On top of this the bidding process for the renewal of the West Coast Franchise went spectacularly wrong when it was revealed the winning bid had used profit projections for the final years of the franchise which were so exaggerated as to be either the result of gross incompetence or downright lying on the part of the bidders.  Scrapping the bid alone has cost the tax payer over £40M.  All of this profit making seems to come at a cost, a cost largely borne by the tax payer and the customer.

So a simple question should be posed to the profit making school hawks:

What will be different about the contracts and execution of the deals which let private companies run state education to those which have gone so badly wrong in energy and rail? 

And if you have the answer to this question, can you please let the Energy and Climate Change Secretary  and the Transport Secretary know as soon as possible, so they can correct the gross distortion and terrible value for the tax-payer operating in their respective areas.

This blog post originally appeared on the Back Bencher Site .

Tony Little, the head of Eton, shares his insights into building character and resilience

Screen Shot 2013-02-04 at 21.29.35According to the Daily Telegraph, Tony Little, the headmaster of Eton is to give advice to state schools on how to build ‘character and resilience’ and share with them insights on how children can make the most of their opportunities. (

Here is a quotation from the article

Eton’s headmaster highlighted a range of methods used at the school to help foster character and resilience amongst children, including:

* A range of school societies where students are charged with booking high-profile speakers.

* Tutorials – including those with pupils of different ages – where students develop speaking and debating skills.

* Developing stronger, more trusting relationships between teachers and students by encouraging staff to do more sport, music and other extra-curricular activities with pupils.

These are of course amazing insights into how to make a supportive school. There is absolutely no way that the feckless idiots who run state schools would ever have thought of running a sport or music club to build confidence. That idea would never have crossed their minds.  Once the 3.15 bell sounds the teachers are hot-footing out of the school gates in their battered Fiat Puntos either to go the pub and drink themselves stupid on cheap lager, or straight to a Communist Party meeting where they can share Trotskyist fantasies of the defenestration of Michael Gove from the second storey of one of his beloved academies.  And who would have thought that a tutorial where a student gets targetted help from a teacher could help build their speaking and debating skills?  Tony Little has shown even in these 3 short bullet points that he has a masterful grasp of education, that his school is genuinely innovative, even revolutionary in its approach. These educational insights are like manna dropped from heaven for the troglodytic state sector; just like the ambassador in the Ferrero Rocher advertisement he is ‘spoiling us’ and  his intervention is surely set to make a major difference to state education, and if he has to wait even a year longer for his knighthood then this is a travesty.

Luckily for those of you benighted lot who work in the state sector, I have managed to get a copy of his keynote at the ‘character and resilience’ building event. The audience is mostly teachers and management from state schools.  Leaking it is clearly, ‘not good form’, but in the interests of the wider public good I have decided to publish some extracts.

Speech beginneth here…

Welcome to Eton School. Founded in 1440 by Henry VI, this school is the best in the world. Many of you in this room probably dreamed of coming here. After having chatted with a few of you over coffee, I can assure you that you would have been really welcome here (as long as your parents were excessively rich and could afford £30,000 fees per annum).

But I am not here to talk about Eton. No I am here to share with you the secrets of how we build our boys into the strongest, most resilient people they can possibly be.  The education secretary (Mr Gove) has shared with me the problem of state education. It appears that none of your students have any backbone, they are feckless, idle, brittle individuals unable to withstand the rigours of life and lacking in even the basic talents to get on. And you teachers in the state sector are clearly unimaginative fuckwits unable to solve even the most basic of educational problems without having them spelled out by rich blokes like me. It reminds me a bit of the British Empire, but that’s material for another lecture….

Our boys are not like your boys (or girls). Our boys are men; even before they are boys, they are men. Let me share with you some of the ways in which we build them into well-rounded resilient individuals, the kind of people to lead this country back to greatness and conquer all on the international stage.  The chief value we instil in our boys (sorry men), is one of complete resilience. Only the other day one of the house masters told me of an incident. He had found a boy sitting on the stairs to his room looking sad. When he asked him why he as sad, the boy held out his phone.  It was an iPhone 4.  This poor boy had a phone which was at least 6 months out of date, and all of his classmates had iPhone 5 (the big ones with the fuck-off 64mb memory), yet fate had dealt him the cruellest of blows and he did not have this latest phone.  But did this boy give up? Did he break down? No, after a bit of a pep talk from the house master he took his iPhone 4 and declared proudly that he was happy to have this phone and he would make the best of his situation whilst he could.  And this is the spirit which makes up the Etonian, the stiff upper lip, the ramrod backbone, the refusal to let personal tragedy get one down.

This ‘make do’ attitude is prevalent right across the school.  As you some of you may be aware, we only have a 9 hole golf course at the school, whereas nearby Wellington has an 18 hole course.  For any other school this dent to the pride would be terminal, it would be a situation never to be recovered from, but somehow here at Eton we can rise above the physical assets of the school (limited though they are), and look to a higher spirit guiding us.  I imagine many of you …. “colleagues”  also teach in schools where your golf courses only have 9 rather than 18 holes. Some of you will be saddled with swimming pools which are not Olympic size, so your boys will struggle, like ours do, in a purpose built, heated, all year round 25M pool. And what I say to you is this, dig deep and build the character of your students with lots of one-to-one time exploring the life of the mind and intellectual pursuits.  You should spend, as our tutors do, at least 2 hours with each boy per week, over a cup of warming cocoa and a buttered slice, getting to know them and tailoring a curriculum exactly to their needs. You will find this approach brings real dividends.

Thank you very much for visiting Eton to see how we do things here. Now if you could all leave quickly by this back door here, we would be very grateful. We’re not trying to get rid of you or anything,  tt’s just we have some prospective parents coming round in an hour or so and the place smells, erm, smells a bit of ‘chav’.  We obviously would like to get the servants in to give the place a good airing. Don’t get me wrong, I like the common people as much as the next fellow, it’s just I’d rather not have my school reeking of them.

Speech endeth, and hapless state school educators declare themselves amazed by the results produced at Eton with such meagre resources. They vow to return to their schools and start music and sports clubs forthwith. 

Upon returning to their schools they realise this is a really stupid bloody plan, as Gove has already sold off their playing fields and any musical based nonsense is not included in the eBacc, and if they don’t make the grade with that then Gove will have them converted to an academy quicker than they can say ‘enemies of promise’.