THE BRITISH COUNCIL-SENSITIVE TO THE VIEWS OF OTHER STAKEHOLDERS?

The BRITISH COUNCIL

Sensitive to the views of  other stakeholders?

 Now that would make a change

Hugo Swire ,the Minister of State at the FCO, in a debate on 10 November ,on the British Council,  reminded the House that although the British Council makes a significant contribution to the UK international profile and …Its role is more relevant than ever: That  the  most recent Triennial Review  “also found that activity was not always well aligned with other bodies representing British interests overseas, and concluded that transparency, accountability and clarity of purpose should be improved.” The other British interests alluded to here are ,in the main, other UK  education providers.(ie exporters)

He added “I would argue that the threat from the commercial activities of the British Council has been real. Our concern is that in some ways, particularly in the provision of English language teaching and exams, it can freeze out the private sector. That is why I am pleased that the British Council has introduced a new independent complaints process run by Verita, which will help it better to hear and understand stakeholder concerns, including the concerns of the English language teaching and education sector, and take steps to address them.”

The British Council had adamantly refused, for many years, and despite regular complaints from other education providers, to accept that its operations in commercial areas represented a conflict of interests, and that it  lacked transparency in the  way it ran its commercial operations .  Essentially the BC was competing against other  UK providers, while nominally, at least,  it was supposed to be promoting them abroad, aided by taxpayers money and the good offices of our diplomats.  Instead the BC cherry picked the best contracts and competed directly with other UK providers for many others.  The Triennial Review accepted that these concerns had some substance. It stated that ‘Concerns raised with the Review Team suggest that the Trustees have not this far been sufficiently active in listening and responding to external stakeholder concerns or understanding and managing conflicts of interest.”

‘We recommend that the British Council operating model be amended in order to increase transparency relating to income generating activity, reducing the potential for conflicts of interest;’

‘We recommend that the British Council, FCO and other relevant Government departments agree to establish an effective complaints mechanism for UK providers that feel they have been unfairly disadvantaged by the British Council and that this includes an option of appeal to an arbiter independent of the British Council or its Board. ‘

It also recommended ‘that clearer separation is achieved through either legal or administrative means and that, particularly if an administrative solution is pursued, some transfer of responsibility for commercial support to UK educational providers is agreed by both organisations.’

Note

The British Council has awarded Verita a three-year contract to provide its independent complaints review service. The British Council operates in over 100 countries, building cultural relations between the UK and the rest of the world through arts, education and society programmes. Verita consultant Jess Heinemann said: “As a charity and non-departmental public body, The British Council has a duty to ensure that its complaints process is fair and transparent. It chose Verita because of our reputation for independence and treating people fairly. “With such diverse operations, we expect to deal with complainants from a wide range of individuals and organisations, many of whom may be unfamiliar with the complaints process. Our goal is to satisfy all parties with well-judged resolutions.”

http://www.verita.net/verita-newsletter-issue-25-summer-2015-2/#candour

 

http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201516/cmhansrd/cm151110/halltext/151110h0001.htm#15111026000001

 

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/triennial-review-of-the-british-council-22-july

UK APPROACH TO EDUCATION EXPORTS-CALLING TIME ON THE BRITISH COUNCIL?

The government is trying a new approach to supporting education exporters. Can it work? Patrick Watson

Published in ‘ Education Investor-‘ September 2012

This government, it claims, is committed to export-led growth. Education is our seventh largest export industry, worth over £14 billion in 2008-09, and is growing at a rate of 4% a year but, ministers feel, it could do more.

So, in a tacit acknowledgement that our exporters need more support, UK Trade & Industry is moving to offer a ‘system to system’ approach to help education exporters. Its new UK Education Services unit aims to bring the best expertise in the private, public and voluntary sectors together under one roof, to enable a more joined up approach to education exports. The intention is to sell international customers a distinctive UK offer comprising a number of providers working together. This, the theory goes, will be more attractive to potential customers than a number of competing UK offers that meet only parts of their needs. This is quite a change. Until now, the go to organisation for UK education businesses abroad has been the British Council (BC), but that bodys inadequacies are well-known. Its too thinly spread, lacking the capacity, expertise or, indeed, competence to provide the support commercial education firms require. It also suffers from a conflict of interests. Though tasked with representing our education services, in practice the BC often competes with it, by providing language training and so on itself. Accordingly, it often keeps valuable commercial information to itself. To compound the problem, as its grant funding has decreased, its exhorted its staff to act more commercially. This toxic mix of conflicts of interest, overstretch and quality deficit once amounted to an irritation. Increasingly, though, its turned into a crisis.

UKTIs latest initiative, then, could represent a step change in the way the government supports the UKs education industry. We know whats needed: the UKTI spells it out in an overview of its new approach.

First, the identification of major opportunities, through detailed country market analysis. Second, engagement with UK education providers and supporting agencies to identify those with the capability and interest in exporting to these countries.Third, engagement with the host government contacts to develop opportunities to the point where they can be offered to UK providers. And, finally, facilitation and support to UK providers in bidding for contracts.

So far, UKTI has mainly focused on the needs of Higher Education institutions, but increasingly it accepts the need for a more inclusive approach. After all, the UK exports a wide-range of education services: independent schools and their franchises, school improvement, qualifications and assessment, inspection, teacher training, language teaching… Such specialist services are often poorly understood by our local representatives, and so havent had the support that they might.

The UKTI approach sounds promising, but  will  need to be backed by political will and resources. Secondments from the private sector would give this initiative some focus and traction. Using education service providers as a sounding board will help, too.

But heres one more idea. The BC receives a lot of grant money specifically to promote UK education, but the consensus is that this has not been used cost-effectively. Why not simply transfer it to UKTI, and use it to fund, say, secondments from the private sector?

Published in Education Investor September 2012 Vol 4 No 7

Education Investor is organising a conference in London  on 17 October 2012  ‘Exporting excellence: capitalising on the global value of UK education’, at the Westminster Conference Centre

Note

UK Trade & Investment (UKTI) works with UK-based businesses ‘ to ensure their success in international markets, and encourage the best overseas companies to look to the UK as their global partner of choice.’ It is  part of the  Department for Business Innovations and Skills (BIS). Lord Green is the Trade and Investment Minister .

Note 2

Unsurprisingly the BC has taken exception to my views on its role and competence, insisting on a  right to reply in Education Investor. Its weak reply in letter form  amounts to  flannel and flummery so typical of that organisation , signally failing to address the core issues raised. It   suggests that I am  articulating my clients views, the implication being that these views do not represent the broader education sector.  Wrong. There is a broad consensus among  UK based education providers, most of whom are not my clients  (if only!) about the inability of the BC to represent their interests, for the reasons given above. Many have to work in partnership with the BC or suffer commercially without  fully understanding the reasons why. The BC behaves like the worst kind of monopoly, and  in consequence  damages UK education interests abroad in a sector where we should have some competitive advantage. It really is that simple. The real shame is that our politicians and civil servants allow  the BC to get away with it. But for how much longer?

CHARITIES-TOO CLOSE TO GOVERNMENT?

Charities-How the government lobbies itself and why

Charities are not always what they at first seem

Comment

Christopher Snowdon, of the IEA, said  last week, in a new report, Sock Puppets: How the government lobbies itself and why that ‘ It’s time for a radical overhaul of state-funded charities.’

The report claims that in the last 15 years, state funding of charities in Britain has increased significantly. 27,000 charities are now dependent on the government for more than 75 per cent of their income and the ‘voluntary sector’ receives more money from the state than it receives in voluntary donations.

State funding weakens the independence of charities, making them less inclined to criticise government policy. This can create a ‘sock puppet’ version of civil society giving the illusion of grassroots support for new legislation. These state-funded activists engage in direct lobbying (of politicians) and indirect lobbying (of the public) using taxpayers’ money, thereby blurring the distinction between public and private action.

This surge in government spending coincided with a politicisation of the third sector which was actively encouraged by the state apparatus from the Prime Minister down.  The report reveals the true extent of government funded lobbying by charities and pressure groups.  Snowdon argues that, when government funds the lobbying of itself, it is subverting democracy and debasing the concept of charity. It is also an unnecessary and wasteful use of taxpayers’ money.  And by skewing the public debate and political process in this way, genuine civil society is being cold-shouldered.

In 2007 the think tank Civitas raised similar concerns  in its report Who Cares? It said  that Charities that derive over 70 per cent of their income from the state have reached a level of dependency which makes them more part of the state than civil society and they should lose their charitable status in order to preserve the integrity of the sector. In a section of the report entitled ‘Paying You To Tell Us What We Think’, the author, Nick Seddon describes the use by government departments of government-funded charities to carry out research that supports government policy. Seddon believed that ‘As the government funds charities, and even turns statutory bodies into charities, the lines are becoming blurred. These charities come to resemble more and more the statutory departments on which they depend for money, whilst also competing with genuinely independent charities for donations, and creating confusion about what a charity is.’

The IEA report adds that State-funded charities and NGOs usually campaign for causes which do not enjoy widespread support amongst the general public (e.g. foreign aid, temperance, identity politics). They  typically lobby for bigger government, higher taxes, greater regulation and the creation of new agencies to oversee and enforce new laws. In many cases, they call for increased funding for themselves and their associated departments.The report concludes that ‘urgent action should be taken, including banning government departments from using taxpayer’s money to engage in advertising campaigns, the abolition of unrestricted grants to charities and the creation of a new category of non-profit organisation, for organisations which receive substantial funds from statutory sources.

Action should be taken so that:

• Government funding of a charity or other non-profit organisation is not used to promote the organisations’ interests in the policy sphere. Campaigning and education around such interests should be entirely privately financed.

• The government is not financing charities in such a way that there are people working  within that charity whose interests might be strongly aligned with the continuation of    government funding and who have an ability or incentive to campaign in favour of more    government funding.

• Politicians and bureaucrats who wish to pursue unpopular – or even popular – political causes should not be able to do so by setting up a charitable or NGO-front that gives the veneer of independence.

One possible solution to the problems outlined in this paper, says Snowdon ‘ would be for the UK to adopt the US approach which bars organisations from charitable status if they spend more than an ‘insubstantial’ proportion of their resources on lobbying’.

It is true that a number of ‘Charities’ look as though they are nothing of the sort and exploit their status. The clear danger is that bona fide charities, and the sector as a whole, are damaged by the activities by these organisations, some of whom have not only been tolerated by the government but have been actively  encouraged .It is also the case that as more transparency is forced on the government and its executive agencies, charities working for the government are not subject to the same levels of transparency and accountability. Charities   do not come under the  Freedom of Information Act and some statutory bodies have Charitable status. The British Council,  though not a statutory body is a quango that    promotes  British culture  abroad and purports to represent UK education interests abroad (a pigs ear for some reason   springs immediately to mind! ) ,is heavily funded by both the FCO, and DfID , and is a registered charity, yet competes aggressively  in the markets against  British education companies. .  The waters  are, indeed, muddied.

The temptation for Charities to pitch for government contracts is strong .But  there is a danger that in doing so they lose sight of their core purpose and mission, all in pursuit of  much needed new income streams.

It is obviously the duty of Trustees to ensure the respective charity remains focused on its raison d’ etre and can demonstrate public benefit   And for the regulator to keep a  close eye on this.   There is little doubt, though, that some are guilty of mission creep. And charities that do not merit their status serve to crowd out genuine charities.

Sock Puppets: How the government lobbies itself and why, by Christopher Snowdon IEA

http://www.iea.org.uk/sites/default/files/publications/files/Sock%20Puppets.pdf

http://www.civitas.org.uk/press/prcs56.php

THE BRITISH COUNCIL-PROMOTING BRITISH VALUES? REALLY?

THE BRITISH COUNCIL-PROMOTING BRITISH VALUES?

The BC has a funny way of representing British culture and values? Kow Towing to the Chinese for starters

Comment

Parliament has given the British Council the right to take public money to “promote cultural relationships and the understanding of different cultures”. The Observers  Nick Cohen  worries that it is now in breach of its Charter.

At The London Book Fair at Earls Court last month organisers said that this year’s “focus”  would be on China.  Nothing wrong with that .However, the problem was that   in order to keep Beijing sweet, claims Cohen, the organisers  refused to invite writers – as “visiting authors” – who might upset the   Chinese regime.  Cohen says  ‘The event’s managers struck me as cheerful capitalists. They want to help publishers strike deals and make money. No harm in that, particularly when they can argue that the promotion of propaganda and suppression of free thought have not been arranged by the commercial arm of the fair but by the cultural bureaucrats at the British Council. Ma Jian, a Chinese novelist, who was not invited to Earls Court, listed the ways in which the British Council was working against cultural freedom. “These big events give China’s Communist party the international face it craves and helps normalise its repression of free speech back at home,” he told Cohen .Cohen continues ‘ He went on to make the unarguable point that the British Council was harming the British public as well as the cause of the Chinese reformers. “By excluding all genuinely independent and critical voices,” he said, “the book fair has allowed the Chinese authorities to export their censorship to a western democracy. Instead, the literary world is being asked to applaud 31 state-approved authors the book fair administrators and the censors at China’s General Administration of Press and Publication have invited to speak on the glories of their nation’s literature.’

Cohen is not alone in finding this all decidedly odd, although seasoned  British Council watchers  are  more used  to such shenanigans and counter-intuitive behaviour from the BC. One of Britain’s leading authorities on China told Cohen that an editor instructed him to not make unflattering remarks about the Communist party in a piece to accompany the fair. Cohen continues ‘ Others described a seminar at the British Council in September on how the British should think about freedom of speech in China. It was chaired by Claire Fox, of the Institute of Ideas, the successor organisation, it transpires, to the British Revolutionary Communist party. Cohen continues ‘This sinister clique moved as one from the totalitarian left to the corporate right without stopping at any worthwhile point in between. Observers in the audience predicted that China’s combination of communist dictatorship with capitalist exploitation would appeal to Fox. They were not disappointed. We should stop talking about human rights and freedom of expression, she said. We should hold our own government to account rather than engage in “China-bashing”. Writers, she concluded, have always benefited from the creative stimulus of censorship. By her logic, there was no need to protest when oppression was good for them. It was “worse than risible”, Jonathan Heawood, director of the free expression charity English Pen, told me. “I was surprised that no one from the British Council was prepared to rebut these absurd assertions.”’

David Blackie, of International Connect, though  is unsurprised by these revelations. He writes on his blog  ‘The bottom line is, of course, that the British Council’s commercial ambitions in China are far more important than the defence of freedom of speech, or an ethical foreign policy, or the representation of any residual British values.’

The British Council, though nominally a charity, contrives to  compete in the markets  through at least eight limited companies and is encouraged to do so by Ministers. Being a ‘Charity’ it is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act, so  much of what it does with taxpayers money, lacks transparency.  It is hard to know exactly what it does   do although mission creep, writ large , is a charge laid at its door .  It is an aid agency, teaching agency, cultural agency and  a private sector commercial   operator  all rolled into one. Its allowed to get away with this because the political establishment allows it to.  Parliamentarians many of whom have benefited from BC hospitality in the past  form up to support the BC when asked to without at any point challenging its hybrid status, or asking some basic questions about its efficacy.

We know, for example , little of   how effective it is, and whether or not it provides value for money  although it routinely makes unsubstantiated  claims   that it gets a marvellous return from its activities . If its so good, then  how come it  needs to be so  heavily subsidised, or ,indeed ,subsidised at all?  There is strong suspicion  in the markets that  what it does could be better done by other providers, whether for profit or not for profit, and, importantly in these austere times , at no cost to the taxpayer.

The British Council has also come under criticism recently for its closeness to the ousted  Gadaffi regime. It is a fact that Gadaffis officials were being educated by the British Council, using British taxpayer’s money. These ‘educated’ officials then upheld the values and protected the status of what was, demonstrably, a   totalitarian and repressive regime, somewhat out of kilter, one would have thought, with any popular conception  of  British values.  But the self-serving elite who run the BC, protected by the FCO, seem to think that they are the guardians and representatives  abroad of our values. Not mine.

Our former Ambassador  to Kabul ,Sherard Cowper-Coles was  clearly  surprised during his tenure that the British Council was  distributing books of dubious quality to an Iranian backed Mosque, throughout his time there, including  that classic‘Chemistry for Dummies’. Why are we taxpayers subsidising Iranian backed Mosques one might wonder, let alone with silly books?

Having been funded by the FCO, the BC now, in addition, draws funds from our aid programme (DFID) so purports to be an aid agency too now, much to the annoyance of bona fide aid charities.  The BC also, apart from representing ‘British culture and values’ abroad, claims to represent UK education interests.  If this is the case then how come it has managed to alienate most UK education service providers by its anti-competitive  behaviour in these markets(and the poor quality of its service).  They complain to the government, with some justification, that the subsidised BC competes against them for the same contracts abroad, while concurrently claiming to represent them. Unfair, and a conflict of interests? You bet. And does the government do anything about it? No. Yet HMG rates education as one of its top export priorities . Joined up thinking, and government? I think not.

OFSTED REPORT FINDS LOCAL AUTHORITIES ARE NOT LOOKING AT ALTERNATIVE SUPPLIERS TO DELIVER VALUE

Commissioning Childrens Services

Comment

A report published on 9 August by Ofsted, the schools inspectorate, has found that local authorities are not always considering the voluntary and community sector, charities, or other arms of the public sector, when commissioning services for young people.  The report states ‘Alternative approaches were not always being considered and poorly informed views among local authorities and providers about the potential of competitors to provide an improved service remained unchallenged. Insufficient consideration had been given to engaging alternative providers from the voluntary and community sector, charities, or other arms of the public sector such as social landlords. Only three local authorities had worked collaboratively with neighbouring authorities to carry out joint commissioning.’  No surprise there then. Ofsted however fails to mention the private sector in the supply mix, which is perverse.  A 2006 report by PricewaterhouseCoopers on the Children’s Services markets, commissioned by the last Government, reached pretty similar conclusions, recommending a fundamental re-think on local commissioning and the removal of barriers to allow in new suppliers, from private and not for profit sectors, noting that some authorities were better at pursuing value for money than others. However, there was no fundamental change to the approach to LA commissioning practice in the wake of that report. The Government will have to think about how this might impact on their proposals in the White Paper on Opening Public Services which anticipates a more diversified supply market, with more accountability and  better access to information.

And if Local Authorities are not considering alternative providers, then what hope is there for the Big Society?

http://www.ofsted.gov.uk/resources/evaluation-of-approaches-commissioning-young-peoples-services

MINISTERS ARE IGNORING THE EDUCATION MARKET-WHY?

WHAT TO DO ABOUT THE EDUCATION MARKET?

Suppliers are being ignored by the Government

Comment

The last government (DFES) commissioned PWC to look at the childrens services market and to come up with some ideas about how it could be better managed. The Labour Government wanted Local Authorities to move towards becoming commissioners rather than providers of services.  The PWC report (see link below)made recommendations as to how the supply market could be opened up so  for profit and not for profit providers   could deliver more  services( sounds familiar?). Indeed this is an aim shared by this government.  PWC concluded that:

“We have identified a number of barriers that exist to effective market operation.  The barriers that exist in the fostering market are typical of these markets and include: a lack of transparency  on costs; limited visibility of markets; a shortage of experienced commissioners; limited  dialogue between suppliers and commissioners; inconsistent application of overall national  frameworks; and potentially conflicting roles of local authorities acting as commissioner and  provider.  These barriers need to be addressed to improve the operation of the markets.  The DfES can play a significant role in removing the barriers and encouraging effective and strategic commissioning.”

Ministers agreed but then not much happened. Local Authorities largely continued in the way they had  always done in providing most services in-house, some even reducing the number of their  outsourced contracts. Of course, there were some contracts outsourced but certainly not on the transformative  scale the Government intended.The message had clearly not trickled down to the commissioning and procurement  staff in LAs.  The result was  that with no government intervention the supply market failed to develop here and companies went in search of  new business and income streams abroad.  But abroad these  companies  found, as they still do,  that they  they had to  compete  against grant funded  education quangos  who are not transparent with their costs and who who do not compete on an equal basis with other for profit and not for profit suppliers.

This government, like the last one, has failed to engage with  these market issues. Indeed, as Education Investor revealed last month five senior managers,   all exporters of education services, wrote to Francis Maude ,the Minister responsible  for public services reform and procurement issues, highlighting the problem of education  quangos and  unfair competition, (British Council, SSAT, NCSL etc)  helpfully recommending too,  ways in which the Government might  help create a level playing field and an enabling environment in which the market might expand. The Minister took five months to reply to this letter , (only replying with a backdated letter when the editor of Education Investor contacted his office), refused to acknowledge there was a problem and , to add insult to injury, ignored their recommendations . The recommendations, by the way, included a number of steps that the BBC has taken to address competition and transparency issues  following complaints about its market activities from its non-subsidised competitors. So what were these five senior managers’ recommendations?

 

Detailed supplier agreements should be drawn up to ensure that the commercial arms of quangos charge appropriately and are fully transparent on their costs.

 

Quango staff should be trained on fair trading and competition principles; and a governance structure for fair trading matters overseen by an impartial body (National Audit Office).

 

There should be separate accounting for commercial activities, with a certificate by the External Auditor that there is no material cross-subsidy of commercial activities out of public funds.

 

There should also be a recognised process and provisions to receive complaints and appeals by competitors claiming a grievance against subsidised entities.

 

An annual report for each quango should be published in searchable format with clear performance benchmarks and measurement of outputs and value added.

 

All quangos should be subject to the Freedom of Information Act.

 

There should be a range of penalties and sanctions for anti-competitive behaviour and the possibility of compensation to deter anti-competitive behaviour.

 

Parliament should take a view on how best it can hold Quangos regularly accountable for the way they manage and account for public funds.

 

These, as you can probably see, were constructive recommendations, from companies trying to export UK education services, in an area where we potentially have a competitive advantage and whose efforts can help our balance of payments too.

We know this government wants to make life easier for profit and not for profit suppliers  and SMEs in the market place. So why on  earth are they not prepared to engage with these suppliers or to address the  obstacles to a fair and transparent market. I think that they deserve an answer.. and not in five months time.

PS

The SSAT will tell you its not a quango and has never been because its a ‘ Charity’.  So being a Charity  means you avoid the dreaded quango label, does it? I think not. Using this argument  the British Council is not a quango either,  as it, too, is a Charity.If it looks like a quango, behaves like one, and is supported by grant funding… then err.. thats  exactly what it is,  a Quango.

https://www.education.gov.uk/publications/eOrderingDownload/RW76.pdf

THE DAMAGE QUANGOS INFLICT ON THE EDUCATION MARKET BOTH HERE AND ABROAD

THE DAMAGE QUANGOS INFLICT ON THE EDUCATION MARKET BOTH HERE AND ABROAD

Comment

We should all be grateful to Education Investor (June) for exposing the grave problems in the education market.

The latest edition highlights the escalating tensions between private sector suppliers and education quangos (British Council, SSAT, TDA (on the way out), NCSL).

Quangos are competing here and abroad, head to head, with private and not for profit suppliers, using their public funds, inside knowledge and political top cover to steal an advantage over other non-subsidised suppliers.  The charge is that these organisations use taxpayer funding to subsidise their activities, and can exploit “captive audiences” contacts and databases (which can’t be accessed by competitors) built up over time, while fulfilling their regulatory roles and use them  to market their self- serving commercial activities. In contract bids this information is exploited by them but   is not accessible to others, because it is deemed ‘commercial in confidence’.  If anything, in the wake of funding cuts, the activity of quangos in  the market is greater now than it has ever been.Neil McIntosh ,Chief Executive of not for profit CfBT Education Trust,  told Education Investor “Grant aided organisations are most dangerous to independent ones at the moment  when they are told that their grants are being cut’.

Not all though can dip into the Aid Budget, as  the British Council has done, to make up its shortfall (the BC is funded by the FCO-but the FCO has seen it budget cut, unlike the DFID).  The National College for School Leadership, as Education Investor has pointed out, irritates many providers as its role in delivering the professional qualification for head teachers affords it ‘an iron grip on the UK market for school leadership training’.  It is now busy marketing itself abroad where it now competes with both for profit and not for profit providers.

The SSAT is signing up schools abroad too to its Inet school improvement service. It remains something of a mystery, though, to other suppliers, that an organisation responsible for supporting state schools improvement here, with 90% of maintained schools signed up, is qualified to support state schools abroad.  Our position in international league tables might  suggest that  we are hardly regarded as stellar  international  performers, as Ministers are at pains to  keep reminding  us (PISA etc-OK I know Pisa has its limitations but the Government regards it as a benchmark) Nick Gibb, the schools Minister put it as follows in a recent speech “We’re failing to keep pace with countries with the best education systems – falling back in the PISA international rankings, from fourth to sixteenth in science; seventh to 25th in literacy; and eighth to 28th in maths – meaning our 15-year-olds are two years behind their Chinese peers in maths; and a year behind teenagers in Korea or Finland in reading.  We’re still not meeting the expectations of employers – with the CBI’s annual education and skills survey just last month finding that almost half of top employers had to invest in remedial training for school and college leavers.”  The SSAT manages to rise above such awkwardness. Nobody has ever claimed that we have one of the best state systems in the world, although that is the aim of this government which wants our performance to compare with the very best in the world, a laudable aspiration. But we certainly haven’t got there yet. So it’s a  little perplexing   that a quango  which is at the heart of our underperforming system, in support of schools, finds  itself in the position that  it does-  telling  others  how to improve.  Pots and black kettles spring to mind.

The SSAT also won a contract,  a couple of years back ,financed by us taxpayers, to help ‘coasting’ schools ie those schools that should, based on their intake, be performing better. Yet these same schools had been, for some time, paid up subscribers to the SSAT. Its called incentivising failure.  Of course some of these quangos work closely and in partnership with private sector providers and will tell you that their relationship is sound. But they are always the dominant partners.  And talk to these providers and you will find that they believe that the benefits of such relationships do not remotely off -set the damage done to the market, more generally, by quangos presence and anti-competitive activities-in terms of lost contracts and the high costs of participating in a market that  is demonstrably neither fair nor transparent . These activities clearly raise the risks and costs of participation in the market for other suppliers.  And one wonders whether we as taxpayers benefit from these quangos activities. They are not transparent in the way they operate, and measure inputs rather than ouputs.

Of all the quangos cited, the British Council is by far the most unpopular and most damaging to UK commercial interests. Often co-located with British Embassies  abroad and the darling of diplomats and many an MP and Peer, who take advantage of all expenses paid trips abroad  to visit its projects, the BC has considerable political patronage and cover.  But as one supplier pointed out to Education Investor “You have got to go some to compete with an organisation called the British Council that’s operating out of the ambassadors office”.

David Blackie MD of International Education Connect will tell you of many contracts awarded to the British Council without any competition-which cannot possibly deliver value for money either for the client or the UK taxpayer. Kevin McNeaney, now managing Orbital, who is probably the most successful UK education entrepreneur of the last generation, nurses many bruises from encounters with the BC. He told Education Investor, obviously with some feeling, that “the British Council exists to continue the success of the British Council rather than as an enabler for the industry”. The BC continues, though, to pretend that it represents concurrently both cultural and educational interests abroad. Yet it competes with UK companies ie those it purports to represent for the same contracts.  Like other quangos it peddles the fiction that it doesn’t cross subsidise and that it maintains ‘Chinese Walls’ (-What? You ask- like those that operate so brilliantly in the city?)

But clock this. In a recent British Council publication it gave the game away. Expressing the hope that the BC would rapidly expand its commercial operations it said ‘The aims are for the British Council to be seen as an important player in our priority markets and sectors… and to present our contracts business as a fully integral part of our cultural relations programme.’  A prize- for anyone who can spot the wall, chinese or otherwise!  If the British Council, the DFE and the BIS are not supporting  UK education companies abroad (which they are not) then who is? It’s a very good question-if you know, could you let me in on the secret, so I can pass the message on to providers)?

Five senior executives of leading UK education companies wrote to the Government in December of   last year complaining about the conduct of the British Council and other quangos in the market outlining the issues affecting the education market here and abroad , providing  some recommendations to ensure that there is a level playing field in the market and that  the referee isn’t wearing one sides colours. It took the Government five months to reply, presumably because Ministers needed to think long and hard about it, more of which later.

For more on Quangos and the Market look at this months  Education Investor Vol 3 No 5  ‘Hitting the Wall’ -Firms brand quangos barrier to new business

For more on the British Council look at http://www.dblackie.blogs.com/