THEY SAID it would be a showcase for the whole business of letting companies run schools.' Pam, a parent in Bradford, sums up what people across Britain were told as New Labour pushed for private companies to move into our schools. The government's big idea was that the private sector would transform education and bring us 'schools for the 21st century'.
They called it the Private Finance Initiative. The results of this disastrous experiment on our children's education has been the Private Failure Initiative. In the last few months the grim record has emerged as flagship schemes have left dangerous school buildings, leaking roofs, and classrooms closed for weeks on end across Britain.
Far from abandoning the disastrous experiment in privatisation, New Labour is pushing for more such schemes wrapped in a welter of different initials and babble about partnership. Pam from Bradford told Socialist Worker, 'They said it would be a showcase and it's falling apart. Why didn't they just put all the money into the schools rather than let faceless blokes in suits pocket it? I don't see how you can make a profit from something like education-the whole idea is wrong. Kids only get one chance, but ours are being used as guinea pigs by a government that promised to care about education.'
Asbestos was found at a Bradford primary school just weeks after private corporation Bovis Lend Lease declared the school to be free of the toxic dust. Bradford has seen one of the biggest disasters involving private companies moving into schools.
Two years ago the Serco corporation won a £360 million contract to improve the city's schools over ten years. Instead of improvements, children have suffered as the scheme has gone from bad to worse.
First the company got the council to lower their targets for exam results so they could qualify for cash bonuses despite failing to fulfil their promises. Teachers then noticed that vulnerable children were not getting adequate support.
Headteacher Gareth Dawkins said, 'Schools have not been getting the quality of support they needed and as a result some pupils have slipped through the net with tragic consequences.' Next Serco ran into financial problems and had to plead with the council for more money.
Finally Serco had to get bailed out by the government, which has set up a school improvement board to sort things out. It's the same story wherever the privateers have moved into schools. When the infamous Jarvis construction firm moved into Merseyside schools, parents were promised the earth. Paul Clien, one of the ruling Liberal Democrat group on the local council, boasted, 'This is tremendous news for education in Liverpool. We will be providing schools fit for the 21st century.'
The reality is that five Jarvis-run schools failed to open at the beginning of this term, leaving parents' plans in tatters and pupils' education disrupted. Subcontractors walked off the job when Jarvis failed to pay them, and the schools are still building sites.
It's been a similar nightmare in Southwark, south London, where building company WS Atkins was awarded a contract to run some school services three years ago. They bragged that they would introduce 'innovation, creativity and private sector expertise'. Last year WS Atkins pulled out of their five-year £100 million contract. The firm's departure left the council to find around £1.5 million for lawyers' fees out of its schools budget.
Janet Noble has two children at schools in the borough. She told Socialist Worker, 'WS Atkins fucked it up because basically they didn't make enough profits. They walked out but the council still had to pay. Imagine what would happen if you just walked out of a job. Lots of kids with special needs have just been left in limbo. They can't get a statement to get the resources they need unless they pay for it privately. It is outrageous this is happening under a Labour government. Kids only have a short time at school. And it's the kids who suffer. They can't just walk away from the mess like WS Atkins did.'
Across the River Thames in the north London borough of Islington the private company CEA@Islington was handed control of education and boasted it would boost 'academic achievement'. But the private company has now been fined a record £400,000 for failing to meet standards for two years running.
Incredibly, education secretary Charles Clarke has just announced his 'vision' for London schools. It includes giving CEA the contract to take over from WS Atkins in Southwark! Molly lives in Islington. Her daughter goes to a school run by CEA. Molly told Socialist Worker, 'Privatisation in education stinks. The first thing CEA did when they took over was disband all the centralised special needs services, things like support for pupils with English as a second language. It means it's much more expensive for schools to get the services children need. When a private company takes over a school, there is massive pressure to drive up standards and meet targets because they have to prove themselves. Some children just get left behind and are left to rot. Just walk into my daughter's school in Highbury and you will see it's a complete dump. You really wouldn't want to spend a day in the place-the toilets are disgusting. We expect children to cope with the mess and still be motivated and enthusiastic.'
Catalogue of disasters
WALES A consortium called Machrie won a £41 million contract to build schools in Caerphilly. But the key company in the consortium, Ballast-Wiltshier, went bust in October, leaving the project in disarray.
SCOTLAND Ballast's problems also wrecked a £43 million project involving six schools in East Lothian. Subcontractors building six schools went on strike because Ballast didn't pay them. The local council has now admitted that the PFI scheme would cost £1 million more than they thought.
YORKSHIRE Twenty schools around Huddersfield were plunged into chaos by a scheme cooked up by Jarvis and the Liberal Democrat council. This £59 million 'partnership' led to projects over-running by months. More than 4,500 pupils had to stay off for two weeks because the schools were not finished when term started.
NORFOLK Jarvis is set to win a £92 million contract to refit schools in Norfolk. The scheme was meant to deliver improvements for 81 schools, but soaring costs means the money can only stretch to around 30 schools. The council has admitted that the cost to taxpayers of paying back the £92 million Jarvis will spend will be a staggering £388 million over the 25 years of the contract.
BRIGHTON The Varndean School in Brighton was part of a £105 million private finance project. Work was not finished when term started so students had to cope with studying in building site conditions.
Firms wreck schools
JARVIS It was responsible for maintaining the rail track at the Potters Bar train disaster. It has been forced out of contracts for mainline rail maintenance. Jarvis was a small, nearly bankrupt company ten years ago. Now it has a 8,000-strong workforce and an annual turnover of around £750 million. This year it announced a big increase in its profits, up by 20 percent to £29 million.
SERCO The company has declared massive profits of £24 million this year, with a turnover of £531 million. Serco stared out as a defence contractor and still deals with the atomic weapons site at Aldermaston and the missile early warning system at Fylingdales.
Serco has just won a £950 million contract to build an immigration detention centre in Scotland and is also going for a chunk of London Underground.