A phoney war has broken out in the heavy press regarding the involvement of private sector contractors in our state school infrastructure. What position should a concerned parent, or pupil savant for that matter, take on the debate?

The issue centres around the use of Public Private Partnerships to secure long term outsourcing of services relating to education. The spectrum of possible contractor involvement in schools currently ranges from the outsourcing of the maintenance of school buildings to the designing, building, financing and operation (DBFO) of schools themselves – potentially to the extent that an entire Local Authority educational requirement for 25 years would be covered in one contract. Until recently though, the involvement of private contractors in running educational services at state schools has been taboo. So where is the logic in the debate? Or where should we draw a line between the nanny State and private sector participation?

Assumptions that the public sector is good - or bad - and that the private sector is bad - or good - need to be challenged. The private sector has always provided services to the public sector. The thrust of that challenge rests around the argument that whoever is the best person to provide any service to anyone at any given time is only determinable on a case by case basis. This is dependent on the quality of the people involved, all of whom will be private individuals, irrespective of the organisation of which they form part, and the cost of the services they provide. In short, the question of whether a service is public or private is the wrong debate.

So what are the options? The first option, for which there seems little support, is retention of the pre-mid-90s status quo. This means that the local authority departments design, and retain risk for the failure of such design, schools in accordance with the perceived educational vision of the local authority in question. In addition, the authority retains responsibility for financing and operating the schools, although not construction, which is always left to the contractors. Without a substantial targeted Lib Dem – style tax increase it is difficult to see why this should facilitate the improvements in infrastructure needed. One possible answer to this question and certainly something that merits further debate is, if tax levels are to remain flat, a certain portion of voters’ cash could be hypothecated via their tax returns. This would reveal whether voters, relative to other priorities are serious about investing in education and would allocate greater levels of funds if they are. Regrettably, the current perception appears to be that voters in the UK are not bright enough to do this, so the tax take all falls into one large pot.

The middle of the road approach would be to build on the current developing knowledge and market practice by encouraging private sector participation in DBFO'ing schools and if the “F” is not your economic cup of tea, then it can be removed. There is however a certain lack of logic in stopping there, and if private sector skills in management business studies and IT can benefit the actual teaching of the subjects, then there is no sense in discouraging an Eton Teaching Outsourcing Limited from providing educational services at a Grange Hill.

There are certain singularities in Scotland, particularly rural Scotland, which lend themselves to the achievement of innovation. If it takes third party revenue from sale of knowledge derived from local authority-wide broadband schools IT networks to cross-subsidise home-school computer links in rural Scotland, then why not explore whatever approach best lends itself to achieving this?

In coming to a considered view on the matter you should not buy into the rhetoric of any vested interest whether it be the unions, the banks, the lawyers or whoever else. You should look on a case by case basis at the value for money of any suggested solution, and the quality of the people who propose to deliver it.

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