The Corporate Takeover of Childhood

Schools are being privatised in order to develop a new export industry

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 8th January 2002

For many children, a new school term begins with apprehension. But yesterday it wasn’t just the children who were worried about what they might encounter. Every term now brings another government scheme, to re-finance, outsource, subcontract, reclassify, zone or cluster some aspect of the handling of our children. And parents, reasonably enough, are becoming ever more suspicious.

What these changes mean, confusing as they are, is privatisation. It won’t happen all at once, as Labour is anxious to avoid the confrontations which have taken place between parents and private companies in the United States. But we should be foolish to mistake the government’s purpose. The general privatisation of schooling in Britain has begun.

Several theories have been advanced to account for Labour’s strange enthusiasm for disposing of our schools, but the most convincing I have seen is the one articulated last year by a lecturer at the University of Central England called Richard Hatcher, in the journal Education and Social Justice.

A few years ago, prompted by the powerful European Roundtable of Industrialists, Tony Blair identified the “knowledge economy” as the driver of future British growth. The UK would specialise in industries such as information technology, biotech and second generation services. As the export value of manufacturing, farming and even some of the traditional service industries declined, Britain would become a market leader in exporting a new international business: privatisation.

This strategy has so far been resoundingly successful. The private finance initiative, for example, was pioneered in the UK, then exported by British companies to countries as far apart as Finland, Canada and South Africa. Though their sales of hospitals, roads, prisons and waterworks are of dubious value to the recipients, they are massively profitable for our corporations, not least because, having arrived on the scene before anyone else, they are all but free from foreign competition. Now Blair wants to do the same for education.

The UK’s private education industry, Hatcher argues, “has to be fostered and nourished by the state until it is strong enough to compete with US and other competitors”. Once they have gathered enough money and experience from the domestic economy, schooling companies can then try to penetrate the markets of other countries. While the United Kingdom’s schools might one day be worth some £25 billion a year to potential “investors”, the US system has been valued at $700 billion. Worldwide, education is worth trillions. If the UK can seize an early, substantial share of this market, our economy will become, to all intents and purposes, recession-proof.

So our own children are, in this picture, simply the crash dummies with which the UK tests its future export policy. Companies will practise on them until they find the right economic formula and attain sufficient economies of scale. Then they will apply that formula worldwide.

This theory appears to explain the remarkable variety of privatisation and part-privatisation schemes currently being tested in Britain. Education action zones and city technology colleges have failed to produce the necessary cash, so they have been superseded by a new experiment in the shape of the city academies. These schools receive 80% of their money from the state, but are controlled by private companies. Elsewhere, existing comprehensives, like King’s Manor in Guildford and Abbeylands in Addlestone (both in Surrey), have been franchised to corporations. Private schools are now considering the purchase of parts of the state sector.

The government has also been experimenting with the management of Local Education Authorities, privatising either some of the services they offer, or, in the case of Leeds, the entire outfit. In some places, it has sold off school inspections, in others teachers’ pay and pensions. It has been “market testing” several different versions of the private finance initiative, in which companies provide buildings and services to education authorities for a fee. It has developed a private market, already worth some £1 billion, in “e-learning”, or computer-based education.

These efforts have established a climate in which corporations are able to gain unprecedented access to schoolchildren. Last year, for example, the government agency Scottish Enterprise distributed 20,000 copies to schools of a magazine called “Biotechnology and You”. This purports to be a “teacher’s resource” helping children to navigate the moral and scientific complexities surrounding genetically engineered crops. But Scottish Enterprise failed to warn teachers that the “Biotechnology Institute”, which published it, is a lobby group funded by Monsanto, Novartis, Pfizer and Rhone-Poulenc. The magazine repeats Monsanto’s misleading claim that its best-selling herbicide is “less toxic to us than table salt”. It attacks organic farming and suggests that it would be “immoral” not to develop GM crops.

In England, the old careers advisory service run by the Department for Education is gradually being replaced by a new agency, called Connexions. Once they have registered with this service, schoolchildren are given a swipe card, on which they accumulate points every time they turn up. They trade the points for discounts from the consumer goods listed on the Connexions website. The choices they make are monitored, and the information is then given to the service’s “commercial partners”. Last year, the education firm Capita, which runs Connexions for the government, told the Times Educational Supplement that companies such as McDonalds and PlayStation Magazine would have “the opportunity of seeing what these young people take up. They can be a very difficult group to reach.”

By themselves, few of these developments will bring people onto the streets. “Labour,” Richard Hatcher predicts, “will move cautiously and gradually, carefully preparing each step ideologically.” Or, as the chief executive of the “edubusiness” firm Nord Anglia commented when he read the white paper the government released in September, “This is an astonishingly important point of transition. It is tentative, because it’s politically sensitive, but it opens the door for the private sector to get involved, bit by bit.”

We could argue about whether or not these steps towards full-scale privatisation improve or damage standards in education. In the United States, the evidence suggests that privatisation has been disastrous. In the UK, so far, the results are mixed. But this really isn’t the point. Our schools are being privatised not for the benefit of our children, but for the benefit of our corporations, and the export economy to which, the government hopes, they will one day contribute. Children are simply the raw materials with which they work. They will, unless their parents demand an end to this experiment, be traded on the world’s stock markets like so many barrels of oil.