England Mulls Privatizing Many Schools: The English Equivalent of Charter Schools Is More Expensive Than Anticipated, So Now There's an Effort to Cut Costs through Privatization

Article excerpt

Are huge chunks of England's state education system about to be privatized?

That question is being asked over here after a revelation that an aggressive school reform agenda, which would alter virtually all aspects of state education, may be moving off in yet another new direction.

The Independent, a national newspaper, revealed in February that the government was considering transferring to the private sector all academy schools (similar to American charter schools and designed to operate independently of local authorities) in a bid to reduce central government funding. While taxpayers would continue to finance academies, the government would, for the first time, allow them to be operated for a profit by private entities while academy financing would no longer be included in the government's accounts.

Currently, the national government funds academies. Academies are run by charitable trusts set up either by the governors of an individual school or by an overarching organization that runs several schools (similar to a charter-management organization in the United States). Governors are volunteers who act as the equivalent of nonexecutive directors by holding school management to account. Ministers, who must approve what the governors do, are national politicians. Academies are billed as having greater freedoms to make their own decisions on what curriculum to offer students, teacher pay, and working conditions. They have been set up to bypass local councils, which traditionally managed public education in England.

Right-of-center think tanks have long wanted to enable academies to be run privately for profit, but the government -- a coalition between the Conservatives and the centrist Liberal Democrats -- has thus far resisted.

The significance of all this lies in the huge growth in the number of academies since the coalition came to power in May 2010. Academies had been a relatively small initiative under the previous Labour government, with just 203 such schools created before the Labour government left office. But the current government sought to expand the program rapidly, encouraging conventional state-run schools to decide whether to leave their local authorities and take on academy status. The new government also has sought to force some municipal schools deemed underperforming into becoming academies.

Now, some 1,500 secondary schools or about half of those in England, are academies, while just over 1,000, or 6% of England's 17,000 primary (elementary) schools are academies. Yet the program has come with a hefty price tag. A public spending watchdog recently reported that the government has spent $1.5 billion on academies under this administration -- extra funding that seems to have lured many schools into taking on the academy status in the first place. And that has helped encourage officials to take steps to move academy funding off the Department for Education's balance sheets.

At the time of writing, it is not known, however, what will come of this plan, which was reported to occur by spring 2015. And little has been heard of the initiative since plans came to light in early February. However, it's clear that the ministers view a more private, commercially oriented education system as a key goal. Since 2010, Education Secretary Michael Gove has had legal power to force struggling schools into taking on academy status because of his authority to transfer schools away from local councils and into the management of academy "chains."

Ministers want to boost the number of schools operated by these chains, which are currently nonprofit but could easily convert to for-profit, observers say. The line between "profit" and "not-for-profit" is also not always clear. For-profit companies, supplying everything from textbooks to temporary teachers to data analysis systems and public relations, have long been a feature of England's education system, while it is possible now for an organization running a state school to set up a separate management company that could provide services to that school at a profit. …

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