Flow of Ideas
Business Sponsorship of Schools: For-profit takeover or agents of neoliberal change?

Richard Hatcher, 5th November 2005, Birmingham

A reply to Glenn Rikowski’s ‘Habituation of the Nation: School Sponsors as Precursors to the Big Bang?’ [The 'Habituation' paper was posted to the Volumizer on 19 October 2005 - see the Previous Entries: GR]

Glenn has developed an argument that the state is promoting close relationships between schools and private companies, at present in the form of non-profit sponsorship, as a softening-up process (‘habituation’) preparatory to a future takeover of the running of state schools by companies for profit. I want to question this analysis and propose a different explanation.

First, the White Paper. Glenn predicted that the White Paper would ‘push the business takeover of schools in England on to new pastures’, including ‘more federations of schools run by […] private companies’, which is part of the process of ‘schools metamorphosing into units of capital with the capacity to generate value and surplus-value’. But the White Paper does not bear out this analysis:

1. It explicitly rules out companies running state schools for profit. Sponsorship of the new Trust schools can only be, as now, on a non-profit basis and by charitable trusts (which can be set up by companies and other organisations).

2. Trust status is optional, not compulsory. In my view – and that of commentators such as the general secretary of SHA, the secondary school head teachers’ union – most schools will not be interested, because specialist schools can already benefit from financial donations from sponsors and there is no additional financial incentive from government.

3. It emphases sponsorship of Trusts by non-business bodies – religious organisations, charities, universities, parents’ groups – just as much as it does sponsorship by companies.

Glenn would respond, I think, by arguing that although the White Paper is more cautious than he predicted it is still to be explained as part of a process of ‘habituation’ aimed at the business takeover of schools for profit. His explanation for this lies in a ‘logic of capital’ argument – that, in his words, ‘capital’s social universe is a developing totality’. In a general sense this is of course true, but what needs to be added is that it is a mediated process, not one of a linear and reductionist economic determinism, and that therefore the forms it takes in particular social contexts cannot simply be read off, they require concrete analysis of concrete situations.

There are two assumptions underlying Glenn’s argument which I want to question:

1. That what he regards as the interests of ‘edubusiness’ and the interests of capital as a whole coincide.

2. That running state schools can be sufficiently profitable.

First, the state does not act primarily in the interests of ‘edubusiness’, a growing but still relatively small sector of the economy. It acts in the interests of capital as a whole, and especially big capital, the dominant sectors of the economy. I see no evidence that big capital has lost confidence in the state’s ability to provide its future workforce such that it demands that schools be handed over to the private sector. On the contrary, that function, providing the conditions for accumulation, along with others, is precisely what the state is for, for capital. The model it approves, and which the Blair government provides, is that of ‘public-private partnership’, with government at the helm ensuring capital’s overall objectives are met but private sector involvement to provide business ‘efficiency’ and challenge public sector inertia and resistance.

Second, the evidence is that running state schools is not a sufficiently profitable business. The profit in the school system lies in the provision of goods and services to schools and LEAs and the implementation of national policy initiatives. Private companies running state schools for profit, in the form of a management fee, is not forbidden, yet there are only three instances (three schools in Surrey) since the late 1990s. Why is this, if not that it isn’t profitable enough? Even in the US only a tiny proportion of state schools are run for profit, and the companies have found it very difficult to make a profit. Glenn’s ‘logic of capital’ argument oddly omits what drives capital - the law of value: profitability. Where would the profit come from? 85% of schools’ budgets in this country are teachers’ salaries, and increasing ‘productivity’ by increasing class size would simply alienate consumer demand.

One indication that ‘edubusiness’ companies do not see sponsorship of schools on a non-profit basis as a stepping stone to running them for profit is that they are notably absent (with only one or two exceptions) from the list of hundreds of companies currently sponsoring specialist schools and, above all, Academies (which the sponsors actually control). Many are large, often international, companies in banking, property, construction and manufacturing making huge profits, far beyond what could conceivably be made from schools. Their motives are quite different, including philanthropy, demonstrating ‘corporate social responsibility’, and promoting business values.

There is one further mediating element we need to include: the political relationship of forces between the classes. While there is no doubt that the working class is on the defensive in Britain, there is widespread support still for the idea that core public services should continue to be provided directly by the state, and perceived threats to that provision tend to provoke opposition. The current growing opposition to Academies, locally and nationally, is a case in point. More radical moves to privatise schools would result in a level of resistance which would be very politically risky for Labour, not least in electoral terms.

My conclusion is that the purpose of business sponsorship in Labour’s education project, exemplified most recently by the White Paper’s Trust schools, is not to prepare the ground for a business takeover of schools for profit, it is to utilise private companies and individual business entrepreneurs as instruments to transform the schools into more efficient producers of labour-power by shaping them with business management methods and business values. This is the explicit justification which the government gives and it is not a smokescreen to conceal ulterior motives; they are, at least on this occasion, telling the truth. This analysis also explains, as Glenn’s does not, why the government also gives such importance to sponsorship by non-business bodies – it sees them too as key agents of change, whether they bring an entrepreneurial spirit or a Christian ethos. My argument does not depend upon a belief that external sponsorship will satisfy the government’s aims. The extent to which it does remains to be seen. Nor of course does it mean that these forms and motives of sponsorship are any more acceptable than a profit motive: on the contrary, they all tend to subordinate schools to business and other private interests and need to be vigorously opposed (and on this of course Glenn and I have no disagreement).

(A more detailed presentation of my argument, written before the White Paper, can be found in my article ‘Privatisation and sponsorship: the re-agenting of the school system in England’ in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Education Policy, and a more detailed analysis of the White Paper in my article ‘The White Paper: what does it intend, what would it mean, will it happen?’ on the Socialist Teachers Alliance website, http://www.socialist-teacher.org).

Richard Hatcher
5 November 2005

Originally sent as a personal email to myself, and also sent to colleagues and friends at the University of Northampton (including part-time staff in Education Studies at the university) and also to the MASSES list at Yahoo! Groups

For my reply to this paper by Hatcher, see:

Rikowski, G. (2005) In the Dentist's Chair: A Response to Richard Hatcher's Critique of Habituation of the Nation, 31st December, in three parts, at The Flow of Ideas: http://www.flowideas.co.uk/?page=articles&sub=In%20the%20Dentist's%20Chair

For the original paper of mine that Hatcher critiques here, see:

Rikowski, G. (2005) Habituation of the Nation: School Sponsors as Precursors to the Big Bang? London, 19th October, online at: http://www.flowideas.co.uk/?page=articles&sub=Habituation%20of%20the%20Nation

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