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Parallel lines – The Privatisation of Education and Health

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In this article Paula Stone draws parallels between conditions in the NHS and what is going on in the education system in England.

railway tracks receding into distanceIt seems to me that every week there are headlines in which the NHS is being castigated by either regulators, politicians or the media, or indeed all three at the same time. A recent flurry of articles has made me realise that there are many parallels between the attacks on the NHS and what we are also currently experiencing in education.

Youssef El-Gingihy, suggests that marketisation of the NHS, and in particular the opening up of NHS contracts to unlimited privatisation, is enabling private providers to cherry-pick the lucrative services that will boost profits whilst leaving less profitable operations in the hands of the NHS.

Aren’t there similarities here with the Government’s drive to open up more free schools?

Free schools were the flagship of Conservative education policy in 2010 and despite deep austerity for much of the public sector, they has been supported by often very generous funding. It has been promoted by the Government as a mechanism for driving up standards and boosting social mobility in areas of disadvantage. Indeed, a 2015 Policy Exchange report) claimed that competition from free schools leads to bigger gains in ‘higher poverty schools’  and that ‘high poverty’  primary schools which have a free school next to them improve faster than more affluent primary schools. However; research by Rebecca Allen, Francis Green and Andrew Jenkins has found that the proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals, an indicator of social and economic deprivation, is significantly lower in free schools than the neighbouring average, and free school pupils also tend to have higher abilities when entering the school. A clear case of cherry-picking, some might say.

Furthermore, despite the claim that free schools would offer parents more choice by enabling them to set up schools in their own community based on that community’s needs, only a few free schools have been opened by community groups. Most have been set up and are now run by ‘approved sponsors’- groups that have been given permission to sponsor and run a free school. This situation also looks familiar…

In 2011 Circle Healthcare,  the first private provider to be awarded a contract to run an NHS hospital, said it wanted to pull out of the contract, blaming funding cuts and surge in A&E demand. Later statements by the organisation revealed however, that it had also been the “victim of an unbalanced report” by the Care Quality Commission when it emerged the hospital would be placed in special measures. Like Hinchingbrooke and many other NHS hospitals, schools face the challenges of meeting arbitrary and moving targets set by the Department for Education and Ofsted. What would happen if all the approved sponsors leading free schools decided that it is just too tough? This leads me on to my next point.

I would like to return to Youssef El-Gingihy’s article, in which he also draws our attention to the fact that since 2010, 656 General Practice surgeries have been merged, taken over or closed completely, largely due to chronic under-investment. He argues that, in particular, smaller GP practices are being forced to merge into federated organisations.

Again we can draw parallels between the NHS and education. In counties all over the country smaller primary schools are being federated so that one Headteacher can preside over the management of two schools, not only saving money but also disguising the fact that there is a huge shortage of Headteachers in the United Kingdom and fewer and fewer people are choosing to undertake the role because of the huge and unrealistic demands of the job.

For my final point, I would like to turn to the recent coverage of the damning Care Quality Commission (CQC) report on Addenbrooke Hospital which moved me deeply. Of course I acknowledge that there may be serious weaknesses in the management of the hospital, and similarly this may happen in a very small minority of schools; however, I felt deeply sorry for the staff that genuinely care about their patients and work hard to maintain high standards in extremely difficult circumstances.   While most reasonable coverage of the report acknowledged the hard work of the staff, this constant negativity cannot fail to take its toll on the morale of the staff. Like the staff at Addenbrooke, teachers in schools are being commended for being hardworking, passionate and caring; yet schools are still being put in to special measures because they are failing to meet inconsistent and unreasonable targets set by the Government in their bid to show the impact of its education policy.

Of course I am not advocating inadequate practice in hospitals or schools, but surely there must be a more humanitarian approach to improving outcomes for our children and young people in schools and patients in hospitals.

In conclusion I would like to leave you with this thought from Michael Apple: “When there is a serious crisis in the state, as there now seems to be, one very effective strategy is for the state to attempt to export its crisis outside itself. Thus, by reducing overt state control and turning over schooling to a market, one deflects criticism” (Apple 2012:113). I would argue that there is strong evidence that this is happening not only in education, but now in all aspects of public life. Could it be that parallel lines, in this instance, could actually be converging into a privatised approach to public services in which when the going gets tough the tough get going…


Apple, M.W. (2012) Education and Power. New York, USA. Routledge

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