Education notes / FRFI 175 Oct / Nov 2003

In September, the Labour government awarded contracts for the next phase of its plans to privatise the National Health Service. Over 30 Diagnostic and Treatment Centres (DTCs) are to be built and run by private firms. The centres are meant to provide fast-track diagnostic tests and routine surgical treatments such as hip replacements and cataract surgery and are expected to be treating more than 250,000 patients by 2005. The contracts were awarded to companies from Britain, United States, Canada and South Africa, though British firms have a stake in most of the successful consortia.

Hitting the wall?
A recent headline in the Times Educational Supplement announced ‘Primary Sats results hit wall’ meaning that the national test results for 11-year-olds have stayed the same for the fourth year running with 75% reaching level 4 in English and 73% in maths. Government targets are 85% and 78%. So what ‘wall’ is being hit? Is it a wall of bad teachers and failing schools or is it, as we have repeatedly said in FRFI, the wall of poverty and class? While private school students collected GCSEs ‘like Boy Scouts collect badges’ (Eton head), poor students increasingly failed to get the grades. The results show that under Labour there is an increasingly polarised school system, confirming the findings of the Education and Child Poverty Report published earlier this year (End Child Poverty Group, March 2003). This describes Britain as having one of the greatest class divides in education in the industrialised world and states that by age 16, poorer children are one third as likely to get good GCSEs as their wealthier peers. Britain ranks 24th out of 29 OECD [leading industrial] countries for the proportion of 19-year-olds still in education. Endless testing and competition between schools for funding may have produced the desired result of disciplining parents, pupils and teachers alike, but it results in a lack of decent basic educational provision for all. That 25% of students leave secondary school with no GCSEs shows that the poor need decent schooling, not a regime of examinations.

There are billions of pounds sloshing around in the education fund, much of which the Labour government has ear-marked for private businesses. In the course of one year nearly £100 million was siphoned off in abuse and fraud from the government’s flagship adult training scheme, Individual Learning Accounts (ILAs). It was easy enough to set up as a ‘training provider’, hire an office with a couple of computers, enrol students on a part-time basis and claim government funds. It was even easier to invent the students and claim the fees: 60 investigations into charges of fraud are now taking place. But the money’s gone and no one, including the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) will be called to account. On the contrary, Capita, the private company that managed the ILAs has just been awarded a £48.4 million a year contract to administer a new education allowance.

Cut and run
When is a five-year contract not a contract? When it’s privatisation. WS Atkins has dumped a £100 million education contract with the London Borough of Southwark after just two years because it was not making profits fast enough. Like many other inner city boroughs, Southwark had congratulated itself in 2000 on being unable to provide a decent service to its schools. It therefore announced with pride that it was transferring the management of education services in a flagship deal with WS Atkins. Business is business however, and WS Atkins could not cut staff and wages fast enough to make the profit it was looking for. Southwark has called in another firm, CEA, which runs Islington Education, to take ‘care’ of education until another supplier is found. The DfES – which foisted WS Atkins onto Southwark in the first place – has meanwhile given the borough £2 million as a pay-off to WS Atkins. Meanwhile City traders are so impressed by WS Atkins’ hard-headed pursuit of profits that their shares rose 5%. Continued outsourcing and privatisation of all aspects of state education has led to ballooning costs for the state but also booming profits for business. The examination firms that run the secondary sector now charge schools £228 million a year. The Office for Standards in Education (OFSTED) may sound like a government office but is in fact an NGO given £197 million a year to hire private organisations to do inspections.
Susan Davidson

FRFI 175 October / November 2003


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