National has announced that the money gained from selling assets will go into a Future Fund and be spent on modernising schools. Is the sort of future they have in mind like the so-called “free schools” now being set up by the Conservatives in Britain under Education Minister Michael Gove?
Make no mistake, the right is very interested in the future of education. Their vision is for profit-making schools; they’d be better called the “free to make money schools” – another cash cow for private interests, who get to control the curriculum as well. Here is Fraser Nelson in the right-wing Spectator:
Gove originally envisaged taking a Swedish laissez-faire approach, granting a licence to almost any school which applies and leaving the market to judge if it was good enough. But he was put off by the experience of the Charter Schools in the US, where bad new schools came to threaten the whole project. So, of the 280 applications to open an English free school next year, 160 have been rejected and the rest asked to interview. Perhaps as few as 80 will be approved.
Yet Sweden, the lodestar for the whole project, started off with a few dozen schools and ended up with several hundred. The new schools quickly organised themselves into chains and set up wherever demand was strongest. But they did so because most were companies, operating for a profit. This idea, taboo only two years ago, has become a live argument inside the Conservative high command. Gove is reluctant, believing he is fighting on enough fronts without being accused of privatising schools. New schools face many obstacles, he says, most of them bureaucratic. The profit motive would not change that.
But increasingly, some of those around David Cameron believe that the only way Gove can accelerate his plan is to bring in profit-seeking chains like International English Schools and Cognita. And if it creates a political stink, so be it. The need for new schools is too great — and the prospect of the angry Mums’ Army at the ballot box too fearsome. But Nick Clegg, a great supporter of schools reform so far, has been given the power of veto — and has made clear he will use it to stop profit-making schools. This is where the argument may end, for now.
It would be the greatest irony but no surprise if our public assets were sold down by National in order to pay for private interests to get a stake in the school system here. We shouldn’t be under any illusions that we are just dealing with a short-term agenda.