Tag Archives: free schools

Political baggage – Free School with every purchase

Toby Blume, former chief executive of Urban Forum, where I’m a trustee, is setting up a free school – along with some other local parents in East Finchley, north London. The school that Toby’s helping to set up, the Archer Academy, is particularly unusual because unlike many free schools, it’s being set up in responsive to the lack of a secular comprehensive school in the  area.

Toby wrote an article on the experience of setting up the school for The Guardian last week, and was ‘slightly taken aback’ by the online response. He reflects on his blog that: “My personal favourite has to be ‘you are dangerous….dont you have a job to do?’ I had anticipated that there would be some criticism from those who are philosophically opposed to free schools, but I had (perhaps naively) assumed that people would read my piece before passing judgement.”

While I also enjoyed the comment that Toby quotes, from ‘maketorieshistory’, I was interested in the contribution from former Brazilian world cup star, ‘carlosalberto1970’, who exclaimed: “What utter conceit. Maybe you should set up a hospital, at great expense, in an area with numerous perfectly fine hospitals…

So what if tiny tim doesn’t get his transplant, so long as your kid gets his teeth straightened and that dreadful hairy mole excised.

What a sorry sell out.

We can only imagine what Garrincha would have made of the free schools policy but the contribution from ‘Carlos’ is interesting because, aside from the simmering rage, there’s the very clear charge that – when the government pursues a new set of policies around public services – the two choices are either to support them or oppose them.

This point is reinforced in a polite and considered way by, Iain Chambers, commenting on Toby’s blog, who says: “while I agree that much of the negativity was rabid and misdirected, it doesn’t change the fact that by establishing a Free school you are supporting a policy that is aimed at undermining the comprehensive system as a whole.

Before adding: “I really wish you and your Archer group colleagues had put your considerable energies into challenging your borough’s educational provision, and by doing so challenge the Free school fiasco as a whole, through the courts.

Underlying this discussion is one of the big dilemmas faced by social entrepreneurs, particularly those operating in democratic countries where governments are making legitimate political decisions that we don’t necessarily agree with. That dilemma is whether to work within the structures put in place by government to deliver the best social outcomes you can or to fight, either through campaigning, politics or legal action to change those structures.

It’s not necessarily an either/or decision in principle but in terms of a specific situation – such as the one Toby and his fellow East Finchley parents found themselves in – you generally have to prioritise one approach over another.  I’d guess that the difference between most social entrepreneurs and most political activists, is that the political activists are more likely to prioritise opposing the policy (using various means at their disposal) and the social entrepreneurs are more likely prioritise working pragmatically to make the best of things.

Your view on who’s right in the case of the Archer Academy free school will probably depend on your priorities. If you’re a parent in East Finchley hoping to send your child to a secular comprehensive school in the near future, the approach of Toby and his colleagues is probably more use to you than a lengthy, fruitless legal battle. And even a successful legal battle, if it ran for several years, wouldn’t be much to those children who’d have to start school somewhere else in the meantime.

On the other hand, if you’re someone who believes passionately that the government’s free schools policy is going to destroy our education system and deliver a worse deal for the worst off young people up and down the country, it’s not entirely unreasonable to regard people working within that system as endorsing the policy as a whole, and therefore being complicit in the consequences.

As a politically-conscious social entrepreneur, I think engaging in the arguments about the likely impact of policies is very important. But in situations where legitimate decisions have been made and there’s no prospect of changing them in the short term, my instinct is that it’s entirely right – if also, in this case, a lot of hard work – to adopt a positive, pragmatic approach to make the best of the situation.


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Profit warning – schools neither better nor worse in Michigan

“A recent report examining Charter Schools in Boston found that for-profit providers managed to raise mathematics scores by more than half a standard deviation per year in middle school, compared to non-profit provision.”

This is good news for students at Charter Schools in Boston (Massachusetts not Lincolnshire) with an interest in maths and a worryingly large chunk of Policy Exchange‘s case for allowing for-profit providers to own and run state-funded schools in the UK.

That said, if you’re not satisfied, there’s plenty more equally underwhelming evidence where that came from, including: “Research undertaken by Hill and Welsch compared Charter Schools operated by for-profit and non-profit providers in Michigan over a four year period (between 2002 and 2005). The model was controlled for student and district characteristics and the results concluded that the type of ownership of a school (profit or non-profit) does not affect the delivery of education services in either a positive or negative way.

Charter Schools are the US equivalent of Free Schools although, unlike UK Free Schools, they can be run by for-profit providers and 56% of them are – as are 64% of Free Schools in Sweden. Policy Exchange, a centre-right thinktank with strong links to prime minister, David Cameron, think that for-profit providers should be allowed to set up UK free schools too. The above quotes come from its paper, Social Enterprise Schools: A potential profit-sharing model model for the state-funded system, which was launched last week.

Some readers might be surprised that these quotes are from a report in favour of this form of marketization rather than against it but it’s quite possible that ‘for-profit providers don’t make things worse’ is as good an argument as they need to make at this point.

This is partly because – I write, preparing to duck flying objects from friends and family members in the teaching profession – I see no obvious reason why the fact that the people ultimately owning and managing a school are able to make a profit from doing so should, in itself, make the academic performance of pupils in that school worse. And partly because politicians on all sides seem ready to listen to more or less any idea for public service reform that might save them a bit of money, even/usually in the short term.

Rather than actually proposing a ‘profit-sharing model’, the bulk of the report is actually made up of similar, lengthy attempts to convince readers than profit-making in public service provision not bad or dangerous. So, a section on existing private sector provision of nurseries, special schools and pupil referral units is hammered home with the point that:  “There is a very obvious intellectual incoherence to arguing against allowing any element of profit making within the mainstream schools system when profit making companies are already successfully providing educational services to our most vulnerable children i.e. children with special needs and very young children.

While those who argue that children and young people are inherently more likely to be mistreated in an educational setting run by a for-profit provider may struggle to make that (not very sensible) argument coherently, I imagine a very small percentage of those who object to for-profit provision of mainstream education do so for that reason.

A more widely held, and quite coherent, view is that given the limited resources we have to spend on state-funded education, it would be better if as much as possible of that money was spent on actually delivering education rather than on paying dividends to investors in for-profit schools.

The question, I would think, for most parents and young people, is not will the sky – or the school roof – fall in if for-profit providers are allowed into mainstream education in the UK but ‘what positive social benefits might they deliver that couldn’t be delivered by non-profit or state providers?’

Again from the US, we’re given the example of Charter school-chain, Edison Education:  “Edison is the oldest EMO (education management organisation) in the USA, opening its first four schools in 1995 having spent three years developing their school design. It has since become one of the USA’s largest Charter School management organisations and was running more than 3,600 schools by 2006… Edison Education operates on a 5% margin.

Research into Edison’s work undertaken in Arizona may shock some readers:  “Its findings demonstrated that for-profit organisations operating as a chain are likely to generate efficiencies by pooling together resources, research and development, best practice and information processing.

And, er… : “In the case of Edison, they translate their principles to all elements within the schools, with incentives reinforcing this. Longitudinal case studies of 25 Edison schools indicate that schools which succeeded in sufficiently implementing all of the Edison principles also show the highest level of student performance.

So, there you have it, economies of scale reduce costs and Edison’s best schools are better than some other ones where they haven’t managed to get their employees to follow their ‘principles’ quite so well.

If you’re not particularly sold on the social benefit of massive corporate school chains saving money on back office before paying it to their shareholders, then there’s always increasing capacity in the system.  We’re told – based on Swedish experience – that successful non-profit free schools choose not to expand while profit-making schools, driven by desire for more profit, do so.

But is this the full explanation for non-profits not scaling up? Or will the arrival of Big Society Capital change the situation for successful free schools in the UK by enabling them to get the cash to grow if they want to – and people want them to.

Social Enterprise UK, chief executive, Peter Holbrook, was unhappy at Policy Exchange’s use of the term ‘social enterprise’ to describe a model of for-profit school that distributes 50% of its profits to shareholders. He said: ““We need to be very clear about the difference between the private sector and social enterprise. Many charities and not-for-profits are now badging themselves as social enterprises and our sector is growing. It is a real asset to the UK. It would be dangerous for our sector if social enterprise was adopted by the private as a convenient badge to take advantage of current trends.”

That seems sensible to me but, either way, if you don’t see providing more opportunities for investors to make a profit as a social good in itself, the case for for-profit schools is not a clear one.



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