Education is changing. It’s being delivered in new ways, in new places, by new people. Whether we like it or not the education and skills supply side is being wrenched wide open – what is coming next?

While it’s unlikely that you will see a ‘for sale’ sign outside your local school or college, the extent of the private sector’s role in schools, colleges and universities is a question all politicians and policymakers are trying  hard to grapple with.  For some, for-profit providers are a solution to a number of pressing problems. For others, they risk undermining the social and civic foundations of our public sector.

Can for-profit providers improve service quality? During a time of austerity, is private sector investment and involvement a necessity to secure a fiscally sustainable education system? Could businesses help solve the looming crisis in the supply of primary school places? Would colleges become more effective at getting people into jobs if they were allowed to go private, make a profit, and reinvest this into their infrastructure and staff?

These issues are worth thinking about more, and the media has a critical role to play in helping to develop a meaningful debate.

Some argue that a more open supply side with more for-profit providers could be a positive thing. Where this has already happened some people see it as fostering new and innovative practice, introducing a little competition to focus minds on standards, and ensuring we have the resources capable of meeting the diverse needs of all our citizens.

Yet schools, colleges and universities are always going to be more Big Society than big business. Nevertheless, the space between the state and the public services industry is becoming messy, and lines of accountability unclear. Getting to grips with governance – often a rather bland topic – becomes an absolute necessity.

We don’t live in the 1980s anymore. The old left-right dividing lines regarding the role of the state versus the market no longer make sense. Today we live in a world of political criss-crossing and ideological cross-dressing.

Making the most of our unique position as Parliament’s cross-party skills think tank, we want to examine this issue further and find the common ground between policymakers, businesses and the public sector. This must be the starting point for good policymaking.

So, is education a mere commodity? Or is it much more?  Is this a key debate or a distraction from the key issues?  Help us find out.

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Nic Dakin MP is Co-Chair of the Associate Parliamentary Skills Group

The Group will be holding the seminar ‘Education as a commodity: buying, selling and making money out of education and skills’, on 12 June, from 4pm, in the Houses of Parliament. Further details of the seminar can be found on their website http://www.policyconnect.org.uk/nsfapsg

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