Education in Cameron’s Cross Hairs

Article published: Wednesday, May 5th 2010

With cuts looming on the horizon politicians from all three main parties are preaching a new era of empowerment of local communities. Underneath the spin the outsourcing of education is simply business as usual.

Ready to cut costs in the public sector

Until he had to worry about being upstaged by Nick Clegg of all people, David Cameron’s line was the Big Society. In terms of education this he means freeing education (among other services) from government by “breaking state monopolies, allowing charities, social enterprises and companies to provide public services.” Although local and national government would step back from running schools directly, the government would be a commissioner paying the people it decided could run them best.

Relying on freebies

Rather than being a new idea however the outsourcing of education to the voluntary sector, also known as the third sector, is already underway under New Labour with one example being a recent report to the government, Putting the Frontline First. The report, co-authored by former Manchester City Council leader Richard Leese, called for a “concerted government effort to transform ways of supporting third sector and civic society’s work with the public sector-encouraging still more to volunteer, unlocking new assets for community use and opening up new sources of investment capital.”

Problems with substituting the voluntary sector sector for the public sector have been highlighted in the past year by cutbacks to English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL), with voluntary organisations being asked to meet the shortfall. Experience so far suggests it has been central government, not local communities, that has kept control over funding and learning priorities.

Many non-mainstream service users often require more than one welfare service and Manchester’s local ESOL Action Plan identifies the need for housing support in particular. There are questions though whether volunteers are adequately trained to deal with common issues that might arise.


When Tory think-tank the Centre for Social Justice rolled into Manchester worries were aired by Jo Garbutt, Chair of Trustees of the Boaz Trust, a charity offering shelter to destitute asylum seekers, who frequently face mental health issues relating to trauma.

Garbutt raised concerns that the use of the voluntary sector may bypass social services, asking: “How can I possibly put somebody with mental health problems or even suspected mental health problems in a private house of a willing volunteer who needs to be able to care for that person, who really needs to have proper professional care?”

Officially local authorities are to have “a bigger say to help determine who needs English language lessons in their local area.” However, Public Sector Agreement (PSA) targets set by the government remain, with one briefing on the plan admitting that there will be “probable tension between PSA targets and LA priorities.”

Although the conservatives claim that they will do away with “politically motivated targets” they are keen to replace them with “payment by results” and it is unclear what the difference may be. Nixon Todd, North West representative for the public sector trade union Unison, warned that the change could imply cuts for schools that did not achieve high enough exam results.

Labour record

Under Labour the hitting of targets was not necessarily linked with money, for example the reward could be a college being labelled as outstanding or the penalty for failure might mean a replacement of management and not loss of funds. “In theory targets were used to drive up standards, rather than financial incentives,” explained Todd. The use of financial incentives to drive up standards through payment by results would then result in successful schools receiving increased funding, at the expense of struggling schools.

In the 1980s and ’90s many of the powers of local authorities to directly deliver public services like education were weakened by the conservatives. In coming to power in 1997 New Labour decided not to restore those powers. In 1998 John Prescott, then deputy Prime Minister with responsibility for local government, argued that “there is no future in the old model of councils trying to plan and run most services.” The government White Paper he presented declared that councils, in providing local services, must “work with other public, private and voluntary organisations and with local people to do this.”

To facilitate this, the power of council leaders and executives were strengthened at the expense of broader council control, changing the role of councils from democratic administration of services. Instead, councils were to competitively attract and deliver education from a range of public, private and voluntary sector sources, with schools competing for the custom of parents and students.

The case for the marketisation of education was summed up by Tony Blair in a speech in 2004, when he stated that “the parent will have much greater choice. But it will only be a market in the sense of consumer choice, not a market based on private purchasing power.”

Marketisation does not appear to have been successful. A 2007 report by independent education charity the Sutton Trust found that social mobility has been frozen since the 1970’s. According to the report, “Parental background continues to exert a significant influence on the academic progress of recent generations of children.”

Richard Goulding

More: Education, Election, Features, Manchester


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