Progress, sometimes, has the effect of redefining what went before. It can make us look at it anew, and see it in a suddenly unfavourable light.

This is what happened to the pre-Starbucks cup of coffee, the pre-Pret sandwich, pre-Windows computing and pre-Apple mobile phones.

Seen through the lens of the new, the old looks a bit dusty, crusty and, well, rubbish.

I wonder if free-schools might do something similar. And rather than only doing it just for education, might they do it for state monopolies as a whole?

We all know that private capital, if let loose on state provided services such as education, will be motivated to minimise cost and extract as much value as possible and deliver it to shareholders. It is not aligned with the social goals of state provision. Therefore, quite rightly, there is a consensus against the idea of privatising core services provided by the state.

However, by agreeing on this, we have made an assumption that no other external capital might join with the state’s capital to provide these services, such as education or healthcare.

In doing so, we have condemned state intervention to operate as a monopoly, or ‘closed shop’.

This is not permitted in any other part of the economy. Rightly, it is seen as leading to unresponsive monoliths operating for their own vested interests, rather than for the benefit of citizens.

Perversely, we have inadvertently created an environment where this is the only way that state or social services can be provided. Whilst these monopolies are theoretically answerable to the electorate through their representatives, we all know what happens when one tries to question them – positively Tunisian-quality institutional stonewalling.

In practice, it seems that the education, health and other social services in the UK are more like a series of Soviet command economies – run on manifesto-commitment driven, centrally determined five year plans.

The introduction of aligned and alternative capital (‘social investment’) to these services might have a number of significant effects:

  • It may enable the citizen (or community) to establish some meaningful sense of ownership of, and participation in, the services already theoretically owned by him or her, and provided for his or her benefit.
  • It would certainly give the citizen-or-community-as-investor a platform to scrutinise how these services are to be operated and run.
  • It may introduce some level of competition, so that citizens and communities are able to make choices about the public services they want – the kind of education they want for their children, the ideas that underpin the medical treatment that they trust in, and so on.

Politicians of all parties are starting to realise that change along these lines is unavoidable. The information revolution means that young people will no longer accept what’s on offer – paternalistic provision from a monopoly provider who has no truly functioning accountability and is run by entrenched vested interests operating with undisclosed ideologies.

In the modern communications age, why should they accept choices made on their behalf by such institutions? Why should they not make such decisions for themselves, in light of the evidence and track record?

The world is different now.  Free-schools might just catch the imagination of a population disillusioned with the inefficiency and unresponsiveness of monolithic monopolies, and give them a chance to create their own alternatives. If we dare to re-connect our capital with what we really want out of life, we may yet return to being a nation of shopkeepers. Free-schools may offer a glimpse of the future that young people will demand: a society where people, enabled by the state, are free to live as they choose.

  1. 06th Sep 2011


    Problem with blogs is that you can’t go into the oh-so-complicated detail. Your thrust must be right but there can be real tensions in independent social organisations – dysfunctional competition and duplication, non sharing cultures, becoming driven by growth and profit with loss of social objective and, yes, unaccountability and privacy. Activism can wane, and social investors (scarce) are not always great supervisors. It can all begin to look pretty much the same as the plc approach

    I’m on the front line of what you advocate but recognise it can be the fig leaf for the forward march of the market. Is social enterprise the refuge of the progressive classes in the absence of politics? Whatever happened to the democratisation of the state, of people actually taking hold of their services at a local level without market distortions? All too difficult – part of a leftism that didn’t have mass support and demanded that the state let go (REALLY difficult).

    So we are where we are. Lets promote the social market and do our best to sustain the social bit.

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