Selling our schools: the ABC of privatisation

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As we head into the general election campaign it's hard to put a cigarette paper between the education policies of the three main parties. They all offer the same diet of privatisation and cuts.

Sponsorship of academies has enabled a series of national and multinational corporations to gain reputational value. Lucrative contracts for other education services have flowed.

The idea of growing "market opportunities" in education is most clearly articulated in Tory party plans to deliver a "supply side revolution". David Cameron and Tory schools secretary Michael Gove argue that the state system continues to fail. Their answer is to allow parents to set up their own schools. They envisage creating 220,000 new school places to facilitate a market in which "good" schools will expand and "failing" schools will close.

To popularise this strategy, a new organisation, the New School Network (NSN), has been set up. A key figure in this is Sir Bruce Liddington, a former senior civil servant in charge of the academies division at the Department for Children, Schools and Families, and CEO of academy sponsor E-ACT.

The NSN has constructed a neat story that may attract parents. It claims that local authority "maintained" state schools are poorly managed and too big, and that parents should be able to choose "new" schools that will be smaller and more responsive to children's needs. The NSN even suggests that progressive teachers might want to set up schools themselves, free from the restrictions of the National Curriculum.

But do parents really have time to set up and run a school? In reality they will be run by private providers, existing academy chains and new entrants into the market from overseas, such as Swedish business Kunskapsskolan.

The Tories' plans are often called the "Swedish model". In the 1990s the Swedish government introduced the right for private providers to set up and run schools for profit, believing that the market would inject new energy into a stagnating education system. Companies such as Kunskapsskolan set up schools with low overheads in former office blocks or factories, renting playground space and other facilities from the local council. They employed fewer qualified teachers and invested in more ICT so that pupils could follow "personalised" courses via the school intranet.

The problem - a problem that afflicts all education systems that have different types of schools - is that middle class parents tend to gravitate towards the new schools. The management of these schools claim that it is their "innovative approach" that has led to their success, but in reality it is the change of intake. The Swedish equivalent of Ofsted now argues that this model has only been successful for a minority. It has led to greater social segregation, with standards across Sweden declining in international comparisons.

Gove also talks about following the example of charter schools in the US, claiming the backing of Barack Obama. Charter schools are similar to academies and "new" schools in that they allow private providers to set up in competition with existing state schools. But their success is hotly contested. Academic research suggests that improvements have been exaggerated, with even George Bush's former education adviser now doubting their value.

It is no wonder that the Tories like the Swedish model. Before Eton-educated Cameron took over, Tory policy was for a return to the grammar/secondary modern system - a system that failed generations of working and middle class children. It was the academies programme that made them change their mind. Initially they wanted to put "rocket boosters" under the academies programme. The trouble is that academies are very expensive - £30 million on new buildings and another couple of million on consultants adds up. The recession has put an end to the academies programme as we now know it.

Academies may become part of the process of implementing cuts. In Trafford, Manchester, the local authority plans to merge two schools into one academy - on the smallest site - allowing it to sell land. This sort of scam will save the council but cost our kids.

Building unity and linking the campaigns against academies with struggles against cuts in education and the wider public sector will be crucial in defending our schools.

There is no point looking to Labour as an alternative. Ed Balls's answer is to promote "trust" schools and co-op trusts. This appears progressive, yet the impact on existing state schools is just as divisive.

Only a democratic, comprehensive school system can serve the interests of all our children. We must prepare to defend it from cuts and privatisation.