FE for Profit?Posted: March 26, 2012
The Guardian reports today another step in the privatisation of state education. The Barnfield Academy Trust in Luton, led by Barnfield College “plans to become the first in the country to run a state further education college as a profit-making business”. The proposal seems to be to seek investment from a private equity group who will then receive a share of the surplus generated by the college.
The details are somewhat opaque. The article refers to provision in the 2011 Act allowing colleges to be run for profit. If any reader is familiar with that part of the Act, it would be really good to have a comment giving more detail on that. It looks as if the trust plans to separate the public funding from the private investment. This is another example of the salami slicing approach to privatisation following the contract given to a profit making company to run Brecklands Free School. It won’t technically – yet – be the simple handing over of schools and colleges to profit making owners but a gradual blurring of the edges of where public and private provision meet.
Then one day we’ll wake up and find that the notion of education as a public service has slipped away. Remember the Swedish Free School put up for sale on EBay – is this where we want to end up?
And even when the provision remains public, you can be sure that the private sector approach to paying the people who run trusts and chains will run riot. Two years ago, the Principal of Barnfield was on £184k, the fourth highest earner in FE that year.
It’s clear from that fans of this approach expect Gove to push the boundaries further, with academies and free schools next in line. The Tory think tanks are pushing the case and it’s becoming increasingly clear that this is their medium term objective.
But it’s also interesting to read the really simplistic rationalisations offered such as the old chestnut of changing from a three term year. And it will, of course, never have occurred to the head of a community school that, as Barnfield Principal Pete Birkett tells us, it’s better to be full than half full. This is clearly an insight that could only have come from a salary of £184k a year and the involvement of a private equity fund!
There is an urgent need to draw a line in the sand on this issue. It won’t be straightforward or simple because of the complicated financial structures being created. Cunning accountants will have no problem covering up how public money is leeching out into private businesses and profit making organisations. Nevertheless the job needs to be done so that the financial cowboys circling round state education know that this is not where we are going to allow public education to go.