Another Brick in the Wall - the creeping privatisation of English education

11 June 2019

Steve Williams, a former headteacher, Labour Party councillor and parliamentary candidate, tells the alarming story of the creeping privatisation of English education


Mick Whelan is quoted in the May edition of the Journal, sending a message of solidarity to the Fédération Nationale des Cheminots CGT, in its battle with President Macron, who is trying to change their terms and conditions to ready SNCF, the French railway, for privatisation.


Mick says: 'Privatisation hasn't worked; privatisation doesn't work; and privatisation will not work' pointing out that 'It was an ideological, not a practical, decision here in Britain, and we are suffering the consequences with the highest fares in Europe, and the oldest rolling stock, and we see millions of pounds haemorrhage from the railway system every year in profits and dividends for the privateers.'


ASLEF members are aware that on each passenger rail journey, it is the professionalism of the train driver and the train staff that enables the thousand or so passengers to reach their intended destination in safety and comfort – not the pursuit of company profits. Speaking to union members at a recent ASLEF event confirmed me in my belief that the railways are a natural monopoly and need to be under direct public ownership and public control.

In my own area of experience and expertise, the world of education, it is the professionalism of the headteacher, the teachers, and all the other teaching and non-teaching support staff, that enables the thousand or so pupils in a typical secondary school, or the few hundred pupils in a typical primary school, to reach their intended learning destinations in safety and comfort.


And yet in education, as in health, under present and past Tory governments, we have experienced creeping privatisation – privatisation by stealth. Many patients believe that, when they walk into a National Health Service hospital, they are being treated by employees of the NHS, rather than employees of a sub-contracted private health company, as is often the case.


And many parents believe that, when they stand at the gates of their children's school, they are looking into a publicly owned building, managed and staffed by publicly employed, and publicly accountable, teaching and non-teaching staff, rather than the reality – which can be very different.


Melissa Benn, back in 2012, talked of the rise of what she described as 'edu-business': 'As we move away from state provision of state education, the remnants of a universal comprehensive system are being dismantled and replaced by new providers at every level.'


She described how private schools, at the time, were beginning to set up or take over failing schools – a process that, sadly, began under New Labour.


Education in Wales, and in Scotland, and in Northern Ireland, is separately managed, but in England, since 1998, many state schools have been transferred into private ownership by the private finance initiative established under Tony Blair’s government.


No definitive list of privately owned maintained schools in England exists, because the Department for Education holds only details of the contractors and local authorities involved, with local authorities individually retaining lists of schools. However, it is estimated that, by 2020, schools will have paid PFI firms a staggering £4.8 billion, yielding £270 million profit for private companies out of taxpayers' money.


And difficulties with PFI schools remain, with the new breed of private sector providers of state education reluctant to take them on because they are so financially draining.


The academisation of schools, begun by New Labour and accelerated by successive Conservative governments, has also moved schools from being funded by local authorities to being centrally funded but operated by private (currently non-profit making) trusts.


Academy schools in England are, therefore, no longer accountable to local authorities and 'new' schools, even if they are simply established schools taken over by an academy trust, are no longer able to be inspected by Ofsted for five school terms (almost two years), even if the predecessor school had been placed into special measures.


The public accountability of schools has been significantly undermined, as was clearly demonstrated by Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, in evidence he gave to the House of Commons Education Select Committee.


Although the government has dropped its policy of forced academisation of all schools, and although only one in five primary schools has been privatised, almost two-thirds of secondary schools (5,905) are now academies and there is no evidence, using Ofsted inspection grades as a benchmark, to suggest that they perform any better.


This massive shift in resources from local authorities (at a time when they have been crippled by swingeing local government cuts) to private academy trusts was meant to have a positive effect by raising educational standards. However, after all these years of privatisation, there is no evidence for this whatsoever.


So, whilst education has been a political football – another public service sacrificed on the altar of free market economics – the professionals have continued to keep up the standard of service in the face of public spending cuts and policy prescriptions driven by an obsessive right-wing ideology. Does this sound familiar to ASLEF members?


This article was originally published in the August 2018 edition of the ASLEF Journal.

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