Sleeping with the enemy?

The Government’s new education bill hopes to get business involved in running schools, but the public and private sectors do not make natural bedfellows and business leaders need to be absolutely convinced of the benefits before they sign up with politicians. By David Benady

Some of the UK’s biggest brand owners have rejected a request by Prime Minister Tony Blair to back the new breed of trust schools that are to be created by the Education and Inspections Bill, due for a second reading in the House of Commons this week.

A central aim of the Bill is to boost the involvement of business in education, but brand owners fear damaging their corporate reputations by participating in the scheme. There are also doubts about what benefits they would reap from backing trust schools. At a series of meetings in recent weeks, Blair and education secretary Ruth Kelly canvassed support for the trusts from companies including Cadbury Schweppes, EMI, utility supplier EDF, computer giant Toshiba, BT and services company Serco.

Kelly updated the corporations on her plans for allowing business involvement in education and asked them to consider the opportunities that will be open to them under the new legislation, if it gets through Parliament.

The Bill offers the UK’s 20,700 state schools the chance to opt out of local authority control, and be run instead by independent trusts set up by universities, charities and businesses, or a mixture of the three.

Pathfinder trust

Microsoft and accounting firm KPMG have already expressed an interest. Microsoft has signed up for a trial run with the Open University, creating an experimental “pathfinder trust” for Monkseaton Community High School, Tyneside. A Microsoft spokesman says/ “There is no single blueprint for trust schools, so there is a lot of scope for flexibility.” The so-called pathfinder is expected to convert to a trust once the legislation has become law.

Microsoft education spokesman Stephen Uden explains: “If you want to get close to your customers, there is no better way than spending time with them. We make the technology and this helps us understand how it is used in class.”

The Department for Education and Skills says that, in contrast to specialist schools and City Academies, which businesses have sponsored financially, companies would not put money directly into trust schools, as they will still be funded by local authorities. But they would be expected to contribute expertise and manpower.

Yet some of those attending last week’s meetings have politely declined to get involved. They say they are far too busy making chocolate, generating electricity, building computers and pumping out pop hits to spare time for the onerous and specialist task of running schools.

A Cadbury Schweppes spokesman says: “We go along to meetings when we are invited and listen to what ministers have to say. We are willing to talk to ministers, but we have no intention of running a school.”

EMI also ruled out getting involved with the trusts. Meanwhile, an EDF spokesman says: “As a socially responsible company, it’s important to be well informed about the ongoing developments in education. However, we have no plans to get involved in the running of schools. As always, we are firmly focused on the core business of generating, distributing and supplying energy.”

Serco – a business already servicing local authorities and schools – is more open to involvement. “We haven’t made any decision. We are going to see what comes out and what the opportunities might be,” says a spokesman. BT has also expressed an interest in becoming involved.

Set overall direction

It should be pointed out that backing a trust would not mean the business actually running the school or schools, since this would be left to the governors and headteacher. But those creating trusts would be able to appoint governors and set the overall direction of the school.

One of last week’s ministerial meetings was partly organised by business charity Business in the Community (BITC), which brought along a number of its members to listen to Kelly. The meeting was meant to be confidential, though one source says a Government press officer leaked the proceedings to a newspaper. A DfES spokesman says he is unaware of this, although lurid stories appeared in the national press describing Cadbury’s supposed plans to get involved as controversial in the light of the current obesity debate.

It is clear that Blair and Kelly need to demonstrate business enthusiasm for trusts, otherwise one of the important planks of the already controversial legislation – that it allows greater business input into schools – will be undermined.

They may be disappointed then, that BITC has warned of “potential risks” for companies getting involved with trusts. The charity says corporate reputations could be damaged if things go wrong. A spokesman adds: “The Government must map out the business benefits of backing a trust. The Government must make clear what the mutual benefits will be.” He says only the most experienced companies with a track record of relationships with schools should consider backing independent trust schools.

Delicate relationship

These developments come as the delicate relationship between Government and business is thrown into ever-sharper relief by the Government and food industry’s attempts to tackle the issue of childhood obesity. Moves by the food industry to ignore the Food Standards Agency’s recommended “traffic lights” labelling system in favour of an alternative scheme shows that co-operation is not always easy. The BBC is also reportedly concerned about Whitehall plans to force the broadcaster to promote British citizenship as part of its brief.

Ministers and business leaders have made uneasy bedfellows when forced together in an unnatural fashion. But Gavin Neath, chairman of Unilever UK, in a speech to the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers last week, said that some of society’s problems – from climate change to obesity – are so complex that government and business have to work together on them.

However, they are hampered by mutual prejudices. Business leaders see cabinet ministers as “slow and bureaucratic”, interested in the best political solution rather than the best overall solution. In turn, Neath says he has been treated as “lower than pond life”, and as someone who was “knowingly and willingly undermining public health”. Neath also believes chief executives have big egos and are not used to giving up any degree of control over their companies. At the same time, ministers worry that the media will portray relationships between politicians and business as “getting into bed with the enemy”.

Some significant achievements

Neath points out that so far, industry and government have failed to produce a joint campaign to tackle childhood obesity, even though together they could achieve this, but in other areas, such as speeding, seat belts and drink-driving there have been significant achievements.

Whether business and government will be able to strike a successful partnership over trust schools remains to be seen. What is apparent is that the Government needs to spell out clearly how businesses will benefit before they can expect widespread support for the scheme.

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