“However tough the territory, the Tory party never wavers in its commitment to corporate and private interests. Conservatives may be in turmoil over their plans to turn the NHS into a commercialised free-for-all. But most can't conceal their delight at the rapid progress of their scheme to break up and privatise English education.
Michael Gove, the Tory ideologue's ideologue, promised a supply-side revolution for English schools – and that is exactly what he is delivering, with barely a squeak of national political protest. Most attention has focused on the few dozen "free schools" set up by parents or sponsors with public money and private-sector management.
But on a far larger scale, schools are being bribed or bullied into becoming freestanding academies outside local democratic control, many sponsored or run by private companies or "social enterprises". By breaking up local authority supervision and services, the ground is being laid for a dramatic expansion in private provision.
Until now, the education secretary has held back from giving for-profit companies the right to take over schools – the key, for market ideologues, to the transformation of English education. Last September Nick Clegg even drew a line in the sand: yes to "greater diversity", he declared, but "no to running schools for profit".
Gove has now given the go-ahead for a free school, IES Breckland, to be run for profit by Swedish firm IES under a 10-year contract. The "educational services industry" believes this loophole of outsourcing school management (rather than directly owning schools) should open the corporate floodgates.
Spectator editor Fraser Nelson called it a potentially "historic event", while a senior Lib Dem bleated: "We didn't foresee this." Plenty of other people did, however. Sir David Bell, top civil servant at the education department until a couple of months ago, says he expects profit-making companies to be introduced to running state schools "very gently".
A string of firms now wowing investors with a "substantial return" from the breakup of local authority control of schools see it happening pretty abruptly. Of course, New Labour gave private companies the run of everything from school inspections to careers advice, along with a few school management contracts.
What now opens the way for more sweeping privatisation is the mushrooming of academies. When the coalition came to power, there were a couple of hundred. Cash sweeteners and forced conversions have now driven that to 1,529, including 45% of all state secondary schools. Divorced from local service support, both profit-making and non-profit companies are already running publicly funded chains of academies.
The coalition says it's all about freedom, empowerment and driving up standards. Parents who resist are branded by Gove as "Trots" and "enemies of promise". Polling shows the public is opposed to private companies running schools for profit, though the distinction – when non-profit providers pay executives lavishly and often run schools abroad for profit – is in any case blurred.
If academies and private takeover really delivered the empowerment and results the government claims, however, they would doubtless be popular. But they don't. Academies are less accountable, less transparent, less locally integrated and less open to parental involvement (governors are appointed, not elected) than local authority schools, while the sponsors or companies that run them can bend the curriculum to their whim.
And despite their best efforts at gaming exam results, the latest GCSE data shows academies performing worse in most cases than their community school counterparts. The same goes for the much-vaunted corporate-run Swedish and US schools the coalition is so keen to emulate.
A forthcoming IPPR survey of the international research underlines both that non-commercial schools outperform for-profit providers and that the competitive private education markets favoured by the Tories are not a route to better results.
So why are Gove and his friends so keen on them? Dogma is part of it. But privatisation has created interests which have driven policy in the teeth of the evidence for years. The revolving doors between public and private sectors have, for instance, propelled Zenna Atkins from chair of the schools' inspectorate Ofsted to become chief executive of the private Wey Education, now setting up free schools, while Sir Bruce Liddington, former schools commissioner, is today director general of the private academy chain E-ACT.
Companies managing privatised services have in turn become powerful lobbies for a bigger slice of the public cake. Revelations that the management consultants McKinsey has been intimately involved in drawing up the health bill – from which the company and its clients stand to profit lavishly – is only the latest reflection of the crony capitalism corroding public services.
A £2bn education services market stands to grow more than tenfold as a result of schools privatisation. But the multiple failings of English schools won't be overcome by creating an unaccountable, corporate-branded patchwork siphoning off public funds. As voters see what's happening, Tory ministers may yet come to regret Gove's "revolution" – until they go through the revolving doors themselves."
Seumas Milne, Guardian 14th Feb. 2012