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...