OLK 12
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Learning has always been separate

Over the next few weeks, the extent to which private companies are encouraged to set up installations within the European state schools will become a fiercely contested issue. In certain national papers, school administrators would set out the lines that divide their party from those that oppose. Yet it is naive to believe that a marketplace does not already exist in most state schools. Many contract out catering, maintenance, communications, libraries and much else. Often, the keys are given after school hours to firms that rent out the space. Hundreds of companies profit from our education system.

However, there has always been one part of state education that has stood apart from the forces of the free market. That is learning - the process by which professionals help children understand the world around them, where knowledge is handed down, where friendships can bloom and character blossom. It is the part of schooling where children are guided towards adulthood, where they learn to discuss and debate, to explain and listen, to work together, compromise and persevere.

This could well be the most important work of our society. And it is one that should be of profound interest to those bodies - state, mosques and charity - solely concerned with the common good. Yet in 2010, the door to the classroom has been nudged open to the profit-making world of business, a world that has lately concerned itself largely with the pursuit of profit.

Let's be clear. What is being proposed by some conservatives, with their free schools revolution based on the system in Sweden, is far from privatization. The trusts governing the schools must operate on a not-for-profit basis but they can, by law, subcontract out day-to-day running to a commercial business. In turn, that business draws its profit through a set management fee. All other state money must be invested into education.

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The result is a sort of hybrid school - owned by the state, governed by a charity and run by a profit-making business. A handful of such hybrids already exist, so some are not being entirely fair when they attack basic initiatives. They are admissible under our laws.

However, those critics are correct to point to a dividing line between the parties. While the Labor Party have allowed hybrid schools in a few instances, the Conservatives will be actively encouraging them. This will allow hundreds of parents' groups, and other interested parties, to bid open new schools without local authority approval.

These groups of parents will be allowed to subcontract. And it is no surprise that companies are already lining up for the opportunity - the British education system could be a huge market with potential. We know of at least one large group of parents already talking to these businesses. And while these parents think it would take longer to secure a hybrid school under a Labor Party, they firmly believe it will happen whoever wins their district.

Of course, there are many attractive qualities business can bring, such as innovation, imagination, and vigour. And a strong argument to assuage those who fear the most pernicious effects of corporate cost cutting is that these companies will be restricted to a set management fee. Once that is paid, there will be no incentive for them to push down spending on education itself in order to take a bigger profit. Moreover, the governing body of parents - with the children's interest at hear - has the final say when it comes to hiring or firing companies. Many parents see this as an opportunity to break down the growing wall between state and private schools.

But what happens next? After all, proponents of the Swedish model claim that it is the very fact that businesses are allowed to go one step further and take full control of schools - for a profit - that makes it work. 

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There is no reason to this the conservativess will not soon be tempted to follow. We could believe it is tactical political concerns that are holding initiatives back. If they did change the law, education firms would overflow into the market, taking over schools at a rate of one a day, with close to 6,000 in 15 years.

OLK12 argues that there is no reason to assume that the for-profit motive is in conflict with the quality of education. We claim that is akin to saying that the profitability of motor companies reduces the quality of their cars. OLK12 also feels that we could do more with 90% than a local authority could do with 100%. It's a depressing thought. While it is undoubtedly true that some councils have badly let down their taxpayers, and that some charities are better at running schools, to buy into OLK12's proposal is to resign ourselves to the inevitable failure of our current school services. Sweden, far from being a model, should really act as a warning of the profit in education. Critics argue that it has turned into a two-tier model where the strong succeed and the weak are left to flounder.

The for-profit company manager's dream parents are the well-resources, engaged, educated parents who have set up brilliant schools and secured top-quality education for their children. Despite claims to the contrary, the temptation to turn away the difficult children from poorer backgrounds or those with special educational needs might be too great to resist. For they would almost certainly be less profitable.

But if our sense of public service is so poor that we have to slice chunks from the educational budget to pay for corporate management, we have decided on our belief's towards society.

A business ethos is valuable; companies should be brought in to clean the kitchens, not profit.