Just before the announcement of the GEMS Report on efficiency and education spending, discussed on this blog yesterday, Conservative Ministers at the DfE were apparently once again toying with the notion of ‘for profit’ schools. My own Party, the Lib Dems were quick to rule out such an idea but, as this blog has discussed before, what is really meant by a ‘for profit’ school? In its pure form, a contractor would offer to educate a fixed number of children for a price, presumably the same price as other schools in the area, and if it could do so for less money it could keep the difference as the profit element in return for the risk run. Now there would presumably have to be set outcomes to prevent a contractor taking the money and providing sub-standard education. An immediate question is: if they can achireve the current standard for less, why not improve standards for the same amount of public money? However, if in other government contracts there is a fixed price to a contract with no requirement to improve service levels with any saving that can be made why should education be different? An interesting question, but perhaps the question should be why the State lets contractors achieve less than is possible from the same amount of public money anywhere?
On the other hand we already supply many services to schools that generate a profit. Resources, IT equipment, temporary and even permanent teachers, transport, cleaning, catering and building services not to mention HR, financial, and legal services. So, if someone is making a profit out of all of these activities, what’s left?
Realistically, it is the core activity of teaching and learning and the ethos of ‘free at the point of delivery’ that we associate with both education and the health service in this country, even though opticians are as much a fashion retailer as a dispenser of eye services these days and school trips cost hundreds of pounds and schools often bend the rules on books and equipment let alone what they see retailers charge for uniforms – an area of profit from schooling for someone, but one where competition has driven down the price of the basic uniform to a level where questions about low paid workers in developing countries might be just as much an issue for some as profit levels.
The State, as corporate parents, has a duty to offer schooling for all, and parents may or may not wish to take up the option. If they do, they expect the best possible education money can buy them and they expect the State to achieve that for their children.
There is probably a lot of muddled and emotive thinking associated with the discussion over profit, but we might start by looking at the point that GEMS were making, can schools make better use of their resources? Anyone who hasn’t done so could do worse than start by reading the DfE publication from 2012 entitled, Understanding Schools Financial Decisions https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/understanding-school-financial-decisions As the authors of that Report concluded: ‘The results show that even many of the important operational financial decisions of schools are largely idiosyncratic.’