As Michael Gove expresses support for profit making schools, John Cronin, Education Associate at Enabling Enterprise, explores why the idea doesn’t sit well with many and whether it can ever be deemed acceptable. This article was originally written for ClearlySo.

While recent decades have seen an increased number of public services become privatised, from children’s homes to waste management, little support can be found along the electorate. A recent report by Social Enterprise UK, The Shadow State, found that 66% of adults think it is unacceptable that profit is made from running children’s care homes & hospitals. 43% found it wrong that profit was made from waste management services, showing that the very words ‘public service’ appear somewhat sacrosanct in the eyes of society. As the government sets to embark on the biggest outsourcing since the 1980s with aspects of the NHS, police force and education system earmarked for the shift to the private sector, the anxiety still persists. Should society accept privatisation as a necessary evil or should we be seeking a more palatable option?

Opposition to privatisation seems to lie with the disconnect between purpose in the private and public sector. Businesses have the mission of making money for their shareholders while public services seek to improve the lives of the people in their community. This is perhaps why there is a particularly strong sentiment against allowing state schools to be run for a profit. The education system should be striving to create a more inclusive society by offering each individual the opportunity to improve their lot in life. There seems an understandable assumption that seeking profit would inevitably conflict with this purpose. What happens to the head teacher, accountable to the board, who is not making them profit? Staff cuts, asset stripping and resource scarcity have been the reality for US for-profit schools. However, if it appears too much of a stretch for most to allow schools to be run for a profit, how have we allowed and apparently accepted money being made from schools?

The idea of external organisations providing paid for services to schools is nothing new. The Education reform Act of 1988 and 1993 allowed schools the choice to ‘opt-out’ of the services provided by local authority and outsource to external organisations, from SEN provision to software support in the classroom. While businesses have sought to profit from offering services to schools in this way, not-for-profit social enterprises have seen the increased flexibility of schools as an opportunity for social change.

Enabling Enterprise is one such organisation, partnering schools and businesses to ensure young people leave school equipped with the enterprise skills, experiences of the world, and the aspirations to succeed. With the support of 25 top businesses, the social enterprise is able to offer subsidised & matched-funded opportunities for schools to bring the world of work into the classroom through innovative projects for students aged 4 – 19 that contextualises their learning in the outside world.

Now working with 140 schools across the UK, Enabling Enterprise’s social impact has been recognised by national awards but its success and sustainability is also down to being modelled on a business, which demands accountability, transparency and the ability to generate income through trade (any profit of which is reinvested towards the same social mission). Even the government has supported the greater involvement of social enterprises in public service delivery (Public Service Act 2013), as part of the drive to ensure public services are adding value to communities rather than shareholders.

If the issue with education outsourcing lies with preserving its people-serving purpose then social enterprises may indeed provide the more compelling alternative we have been looking for.

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