In the early 1990s, I sat on Oxfordshire’s Education Committee. At that time, we were forced to outsource the county’s school meal service. The contract went to an offshoot of what was then CfBT,. After several changes of direction and contractor, the one constant was the need to outsource such services. With the coming of local management by schools, first grant maintained schools, then academies and finally all schools were allowed to do their own thing and decide either who to appoint or even to provide the meals service themselves. With the collapse of Carillion, the question is whether the wheel is now turning again and creating a climate for a politically controlled in-house delivery of services once again? Of course, while schools retain the purchasing decisions, as the budget holder, there will never be a return to the previous system of a centrally imposed system.
In the early days of this blog, in 2014, I wrote about some of the issues facing councils and contractors, especially over the savings in staff costs -see https://johnohowson.wordpress.com/2014/07/28/private-or-public/ and I wonder whether another stage in the cycle of government contracting is starting to emerge. In the immediate post-war period of central planning, public bodies often ran most services. There was no profit element to consider, but cost controls were of variable quality. The Thatcher era saw a mass transfer of services to private companies, with an expectation that costs would fall. Maybe some did, but others didn’t and some benefitted from the proceeds of technological change that drove down costs, but didn’t create competition and didn’t always drive down prices.
However, when costs have been reduced, it is clear that the profit element in a contract is often paying for more than the risk involved in the enterprise, especially where it is services that are being provided. I recognised this when I set up TeachVac and the DfE presumably recognise it with their latest attempt to establish a vacancy service for schools and teachers. In education, the problem is that many of the budget holders, schools, are too small to gain purchasing power, except where they can purchase locally.
Can and should democratically elected local authorities play a part in providing services to schools? We shall see. There are clearly those on the right of politics that see State provided services as an anathema. Presumably, they are not happy with the DfE creating a publically operated vacancy service for teachers? I have yet to see any opinion from them, but it is an interesting test of where they see the limits of state action?
Finally, back to the Carillion saga. Fortunately, Oxfordshire had been in the process of recovering the contracts for both construction and facilities management services outsourced in 2012 to Carillion. This is as a result of pressure from councillors of all political parties. From 2014, issues about school construction projects not meeting deadlines were regularly raised at political group briefings. Oxfordshire’s residents are fortunate that the County has no Party with a large majority and every incentive for opposition parties to hold the ruling group’s feet to the fire over the management of services. But, in education none of this solves the bigger governance issues around the two parallel systems of academies and maintained schools.