Opinion: We must fight the Tories’ plans to privatise the education system

I couldn’t help but to raise an eyebrow at the Telegraph’s recent front page splash, in which David Cameron unveiled his education plan for the future: “a new generation of comprehensive schools.”

Say what? Has he at last morphed into Tony Blair, grin and all? Well, no. The truth behind the headline (as usual with the Tories) is more sinister – and a glimpse of this truth could be found in the Telegraph’s leader on the story. It says:

Charities, private companies and parents’ groups will also be allowed to set up schools – competing with existing primaries and secondaries for local children – and in time, though this is not yet Tory policy, to do so for a profit” [my emphasis].

So there we have it: this is a plan by the Tories to privatise the entire education system through the back door.

As we all know, Dave is quite a fan of private education. An Eton boy himself, he has selected a shadow cabinet which almost entirely went to fee-paying schools. Now they want all schools to be “free of local authority control”, as the Telegraph puts it – which means run like businesses rather than schools. The disastrous experiment with higher education will now be inflicted on everyone, with parents flogging themselves to death to get their children into a decent school, while those who can’t afford it (ie, non-Tory voters), are dumped at the bottom of the pile.

Against this background, it is essential that the Lib Dems, now more than ever, stand up for free education. This means education at all levels – including universities.

If we don’t campaign for the right of young people to get a university education without being saddled with life-long debt, then students will have no support from any of the major British policical parties. That will pave the way for the Tories to extend to the experiment to schools, which would drag us back to the Middle Ages. Viewed through the lens of history, this would be a humiliation for Britain.

At our Spring Conference next month, the Lib Dems will debate whether or not to support top-up fees for students. At £3 billion, it is our biggest spending commitment, so deserves serious attention. The money could indeed be spent on something else – nuclear warheads, say. But my view is that this is a price worth paying to ensure that the next generation is not doomed to a life of debt. And, equally important, it will set our path to campaign against the Tories when they try to privatise our schools – which I can assure you they will.

* Joe Taylor is the Lib Dem Organiser for Camborne and Redruth.

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  • Until last week I thought the above was Nick Clegg’s favoured policy!

    But after the release of the policy document, according to which these “independent state schools” will have to be commissioned by local authorities, I’m not so sure.

  • Liberal Neil 10th Feb '09 - 5:28pm

    Quite right Joe.

    We should be supporting ALL schools to povide a good quality education for their community – not encouraging them to spend their time and energy competing with each other as if they were supermarkets trying to sell more baked beans.

    The vast majority of parents send their children to their local state school, and just want to be confident that it is dping a good job by their children.

    Our policies will work well for them.

  • Liberal Neil – then why not nationalise grocery, and “support ALL supermarkets to provide good quality food for their communities”?

    Think how much better they’d be if they didn’t “spend their time and energy competing with each other”.

  • Liberal Neil 10th Feb '09 - 6:27pm

    Because tins of beans and children’s education are two very different things!

    Lack of access to good quality baked beans won’t ruin a child’s prospects in the way that lack of access to a good quality education will.

  • “If we don’t campaign for the right of young people to get a university education without being saddled with life-long debt,”

    I agree with the sentiment – however I’m not sure the hyperbole helps. Average student debt is (according to Google) £17,500 – that’s not small change but it isn’t a life long debt.

    Fees only make up about half of that – however you aren’t repaying that if your earning under £15k and the interest rate is the lowest you’ll ever get. The other half of student debt will be at market interest rates with no easy payment terms if your on a low wage and AFAICS that is something we don’t address.

    IME the problem for students at University isn’t the cost of fees (which is effectively deferred) but the cost of day to day living which means overdrafts and/or working – which has a consequential impact on studying. Until we talk about cutting or at least limiting the growth of University places I’m not sure how we can address that issue.

  • This was a strange article. If parents can choose, I have no problem if a school wants to make a small profit. One of the best Swedish schools is a profit-making institution, and we should be looking to what works. I also have no idea what Eton has to do with anything. Shirley Williams- St Pauls Girls and Cambridge- created comps in the first place.

  • Why on Earth shouldn’t schools make a profit???

  • David Morton 10th Feb '09 - 10:09pm

    Its a bit of an acid trip of an article. You take one small sentence in a Daily Telegraph editorial and turn it into a vast right wing conspracy to privatise every school in the country.

    The problem is that Conservative and Liberal Democrat education policies are now remarkably similar. However thats bugger all use to you in Cornwall where fighting on all fronts requires tribalism,partisanship and bloo just. So lets just close our eyes and pretend that the other lot are really planning to eat babies. Through in some chippy and unpleasent references to Camerons educational back ground ( after all Nick Clegg only went to Westminster and Cambridge) and we’ll be fine.

    Basically in a sentence ” Go back to your constituiencies and prepare for opposition to the next Government.”


  • this is a plan by the Tories to privatise the entire education system through the back door

    Is it bollocks.

    It’s a restatement of the creeping Tory support for the Swedish system, which is also very close to what Nick’s proposing. We already have schools within the state sector run for profit, and even the most ardent Tory privatiser wouldn’t have all schools profit making.

    Schools are already competing, that’s what this “choice” initiative is. They’ve been competing since way before I was taking my 11+ nearly 25 years ago.

    It’s time we allowed parents to really take control of the education system, and work with local authorities and other providers. I have no problem with charitable trusts providing a school, nor would I have a problem with private providers,a s long as the level of funding remains the same per pupil.

    Can we stop tilting at windmills and look at the horrible mess our education system’s been in for the last 50 years instead? Centralised planning doesn’t work. That’s teh basic point of liberalism.

    Let’s give parents real control. If the Tories want to pick up an inherently liberal idea and work with it, then fine, it’s a good idea, and they didn’t come up with anything better while in office.

    We currently have a bunch of false choices. Let’s give parents some real ones, at least then we might get some progress.

  • Properly Liberal 10th Feb '09 - 11:34pm

    Hang on, what is wrong with charities and other interested parties setting up schools. As long as access is free from selection and doesn’t charge fees, shouldn’t we encourage people to set up schools? Wasn’t the liberal party founded on volutarism? When did we morph into a party thinking the state knows best?

  • But if the Lib Dem policy is now to allow other organisations running schools to receive state funding only where they are commissioned to do so by local authorities, as it seems to be, don’t the free-market, profit-is-good, competition-will-solve-all-our-problems brigade think the Tory policy is closer to their ideology than the Lib Dem one?

    I still don’t believe any of these people can have commuted by train in the last few years, if they believe that privatisation is the road to Nirvana, but still …

  • Liberal Neil 11th Feb '09 - 12:49am

    Tristan – “Competition drives success, in all walks of life.”

    Particularly banking?

    “That is why the private sector provides a better education than the state sector”

    The private sector can afford to provide better education to the small minority who can afford the fees to fund it.

    This is exactly why the market is not the best mechanism through which to provide education – because those with more money would buy a better education for their children.

    I believe every child should have the chance to a good quality education and that needs the state to step in and ensure there is universal provision.

  • Liberal Neil 11th Feb '09 - 12:54am

    Hywel – you make a strong point about the unfairness of the current repayment system and I certainly want to see us address that.

    On your point about ‘lifelong debt’ – well under the currebt system a debt of £17,500 will leave many graduates in debt for the full 25 years if they are on salary between £15K and £25K.

  • “I still don’t know what our actual policy is …”

    Wouldn’t it be a good idea to inform yourself by at least scanning the document, before holding forth at length on education policy?

  • Yes, that’s right Huw. No one “from a working class background” supports liberalising the education system. Right on, brother, keep the red flag flying…

  • Matthew Huntbach 11th Feb '09 - 9:51am


    “Competition drives success, in all walks of life.
    Education is no different.

    That is why the private sector provides a better education than the state sector – because they need to attract pupils so they must provide a better education, more suited to their pupils.”

    The idea that there is no competition in the state sector is nonsense. Schools are madly competing against each other to get the SATs and GCSE results required to put them at the upper ends of the borough league tables.

    The dominating factor in success of schools is the nature of the pupils they have. If it were not, you would find “good” and “bad” schools randomly distributed across the country, which you do not – the “good” schools are overwhelmingly in places where the pupils come from wealthy and educated backgrounds, and the “bad” schools are overwhelmingly in places where the pupils come from poor and uneducated backgrounds.

    Fee-paying schools by their nature tend to have pupils from a wealthy background, and that is the dominating reason why they are “good”.

    Local authorities fund schools on a roughly equal basis, as it is believed pupils should get roughly equal education. That is why it is not like supermarkets where you can get tastier or more unusual food if you are able to pay more. Local authorities do not, however, dictate what goes on inside schools – that is a matter for the school Head, the governing body and the national curriculum. People who witter on about state schools on the supposition that councils dictate to them what to teach and how to teach it, so they must all be the same and lacking in competition, are only showing their own ignorance. I suspect most of them are people who went to private schools and have some stereotypical image of state schools full of nasty working-class oiks, and councillors sitting in the Town Hall busily planning their curricula.

    There is an issue, however, that if you want more competition you need surplus capacity. If you want private organisations to be able to set up schools which are funded on the same basis as state schools, you get it, yes, but you’re signing a blank cheque. The costs of running them fall on top of the costs of running the existing state schools. Free market types who favour this idea are the first to complain about high taxation.

    A big part of the problem of “a system that allows pupils to learn what they’ll need to be successful in life” is that most pupils and their parents and often their teachers don’t know. This is more so when they don’t come from a background which might give them experience that would help.

    As an example, I was for many years the Admissions Tutor for my university department of Computer Science. We were overwhelmed by applicants who had taken A-level ICT because they thought this is what would be useful for the subject. It isn’t – A-level Mathematics is much more useful. Often they’d dropped Maths and taken up ICT because they thought or has been told the ICT would be useful for their intended career and Maths would be “useless”. Often their teachers thought this as well. Sometimes the teachers confessed they knew otherwise, but pushed ICT because it was easier, got more passes, pushed the schools up the league tables, attracted more pupils, got less complaints about being “boring” or “useless”.

    Regarding “competition” my experience is that most applicants looked no further than the position in the university league table. They pick university X over university Y because X is higher than Y on the Times League table. What is actually taught in X and Y in the subject they want is almost irrelevant to their choice. I was amazed at how many applicants obviously hadn’t even read the prospectus let alone done any further research. The consequence of this is that all that counts in attracting the best students is doing whatever it is that pushes you up the league tables. Quality of education is not a major factor in that.

  • Matthew Huntbach 11th Feb '09 - 10:14am

    No Jock, I’m simply observing that many of the comments made about “state schools” in this sort of debate seem to be somewhat detached from the reality of how they work. They seem to be based more on a stereotype than reality.

    Anyone who has an involvement in the state school system knows how overwhelming this competition to get the best SATS and GCSE results is. To say there is no competition here is plain nonsense.

    I know myself, having been a councillor, that councils don’t have any say over what goes on in schools. I wish I had in that position, as I’d have loved to change them and bring in my experience over such things as the uselessness of school ICT and the lack of understanding of the value of Maths. But I found I had no say whatsoever in these things when I was a councillor. If my experience is not more general, let other from the basis of experience demonstrate that.

    I put it down to ignorance. If those who disagree with me think I am wrong, let them say why. Let them explain what it is they think councillors do to control what happens in schools. Let them explain why it is that last year in primary school is dominated by SATS if there is no competition on these things. Let them use some statistics to show that the correlation between “good/bad” schools and wealthy/poor areas is just random, if they think I am wrong and prejudiced to argue it is not.

    The fact is, Jock, I am bringing in my direct experience here. Those I am arguing with are, on the whole, not.

  • Huw Dawson, I myself am working-class (& not a libertarian or necessarily an advocate of this approach) but I must take issue with what you’ve said.

    The problems you identify, rightly, are largely down to state interference in the management of schools. Both the “left” & the “right”, Labour & Conservatives (Thatcher was an offender too) are culpable.

    You say yourself that schools shouldn’t be micromanaged but they should receive state funding. That is the basic outline of Conservative & Liberal Democrat policy, with which I agree. The fact is that the proposals have been misrepresented.

    I know some people from priviliged backgrounds are out of touch. But the proposals I’ve seen have been geared towards ending a two-tier system, not strengthening it. We already have apartheid, largely thanks to managerialism.

    League tables, & the SAT system (which teachers largely oppose) are impositions of the government.

    If by “free” you mean free at the point of delivery (though of course they’re not truly free as we pay for them out of taxation) then neither Cameron, not Clegg, nor anyone else are proposing to do away with that.

  • “Don’t write about their primary and secondary education policy, which – as other commenters have pointed out – is similar to ours in its essentials.”

    But is it, really, if Lib Dem policy is going to be that these schools run by independent organisations have to be commissioned by the local authority?

    That’s very far from the free market state system that the right-wingers are arguing for. It seems to me that – so far from wanting to “fight” this Tory policy, those people should actually be supporting the Tory policy and fighting the Lib Dem one.

  • Matthew Huntbach 11th Feb '09 - 12:34pm


    I’m very happy for all sorts of schools to be on offer. But that’s open now – schools have their own internal management and can offer what they like. I’m very happy for state control such as the national curriculum to be removed from that. There is an issue on whether we need something that guarantees some minimum standards, but let’s leave that for now.

    So, it’s open right now for a primary school to say

    “We don’t have brilliant SATS result but we do offer …”

    or for a secondary school to say

    “We don’t have brilliant GCSE results but we do offer …”

    but by and large these sales pitches don’t work. When offered a competitive choice, consumers overwhelming opt for top of the league table as measured by these tests. I wish they didn’t, but they do, and it has bad consequences. I don’t think in response to this we should say “ban league tables” or “ban tests”. The SATs would be fine if primary schools treated them as they should be treated (a snapshot, the kids just see them as one rather boring lesson), but it’s consumer demand which turns them into monstrosities (spend the whole year coaching the kids to do well in them at the expense of wider learning, and force them to do so by fear).

    Regarding the provision of more choice, as I’ve already said the issue with that is that you need an over-provision. If you over-provide you pay for more places to be kept open and that costs more in taxes. If you don’t over-provide, you limit the choices available. If you’re prepared to have hundreds of whacky schools open each taking a handful of kids from eccentric parents who want that sort of whacky school, all well and good, but are you prepared to pay the extra taxes that will cost? If the line is anyone can set up a school, and we’ll pay for it out of taxpayers money if it’s popular, all well and good, but that means existing schools will lose numbers, will become unviable, will have to be closed down, and that will be costly. If you and everyone else is prepared to say “Fine, we’ll pay much higher council tax in order to allow that”, all well and good, I just note it as an issue.

    As for “what proportion of kids going through the education system get as far as a university admissions tutor?”, it’s about half. I was also speaking from my experience of being on an LEA and finding it meant I had almost no say in what went in schools, which is not the impression many people on the “free schools” side give.

  • Matthew Huntbach 11th Feb '09 - 1:55pm


    “We don’t do GCSEs here but we offer them a range of trade skills and guarantee (money back) that your child will be able to read, write and count to a reasonable standard and arrange an apprenticeship placement at the end.”

    Open now, to some extent. But GCSEs are the accepted test that a child can read, write and count to a reasonable standard.

    Regarding “money back”, I’m afraid that’s an invitation to fiddle the figures or water down the assessment to make sure everyone passes. Very easily done if, as you suggest, you don’t offer the standard qualification which is a universal test of basic abilities.

  • Liberal Eye 11th Feb '09 - 5:51pm


    What no advocate of an educational market has yet explained in a simple way that I can understand is how it can actually work unless there is very substantial and sustained overcapacity – probably 20% – 25%. The cost implications are horrific.

    Absent such overcapacity, what you actually get is a ‘sellers market’ with choice in the hands of the school not the parents and hence rationing of places at the ‘good’ schools. Such rationing might be by money (which probably works for the Tories, but not for me) or by lottery (hardly a market mechanism) or by some more devious means whereby the school in practice selects the ‘good’ pupils. Wasn’t there a minor scandal a few months ago when surprise, surprise this was discovered to be exactly what was happening in large numbers of open access schools despite reams of policies to the contrary?

    My mother was a primary head and her bete noir was a local (private) school that openly boasted of how good its results were (in those pre-league table days this meant the percentage going to grammar schools) but made sure that its result remained good by school-sponsored bullying of any kids that looked likely to ‘fail’ grammar school entrance until they left.

    A general rule of markets is that to work properly both parties to a transaction must have good information about that transaction. That rule is clearly violated in this case; the school had exceptionally well educated parents yet for years it got away with an highly misleading presentation of its quality. For less alert parents the difficulty is even greater.

    Matthew is right competition in education is savage but not necessarily usefully productive.

    However, when you talk of alternatives like GCSE vs trade skills etc you are onto something important but different – the importance of provision which is not monolithic one-size-fits-all and the appropriateness of a particular school for a particular child. Stay with that thought.

  • At the risk of making the classic internet blunder of arguing with someone I fundamentally agree with Neil’s point above misses one element – namely that the reason it takes so long to repay Student loans on low incomes is precisely because they are set up to relieve those on low incomes.

    It will never be economic to pay a student loan off early so its not surprising However the non-SLC debt students have is I bet paid off considerably quicker than in 25 years.

    If the figures on average student debt are correct then they are roughly half the mortgage I took out in 2001 (when not earning massively above the £15k – about £19k IIRC) and less than many people spend on a new car.

    It isn’t pocket change by any means. But nor is it the sort of sum that really is a life long debt – that’s just pure hyperbole.

    For students at University IME the issue is not the money they’ve borrowed to pay their fees but having enough money to cover living costs and how to augument that with employment which has a consequent knock-on effect to studying.

  • Liberal Neil 11th Feb '09 - 10:58pm

    Hywel – I agree with you to an extent. Clearly those on very low incomes don’t have to pay anything.

    My concern is not that the level of debt students leave college with is ‘crippling’ but that a) it is more offputting to those who we least want to be put off, and b) the repayment system is regressive overall. By this I mean that someone earning an average of, say, £25K durin the 25 years after graduation pays back twice as big a proportion of their income as someone on an average of £50K.

    If we are going to ask graduates to contribute I would prefer to do it via a straightforward Graduate Tax rather than on the basis of individual loans.

  • Liberal Eye 12th Feb '09 - 3:42pm


    I like the Spencer quote and I agree very much that we need to get away from the world where a comprehensive is where you go if you ‘fail’ the grammar school entrance – a notion that still lurks in the undergrowth.

    Firms operating in a market exploit and respond to that market, they do not remake the market in a new or more logical form. (The main exception is where a firm is so large that it effectively IS the market – e.g. Microsoft). In education a school (or group of schools) could not do this.

    The biggest single flaw in the existing system is that it is quite remarkably producer-centred. Govt can and should change this to a system focussed on the student. That would immediately bring in the sort of choices you support – GCSE vs trade skills for instance.

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