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Why for-profit companies should take over weak schools

17 October 2012

The basic question in my report for Policy Exchange on school chains, out today, is simple: we’ve got a big education problem in this country and what can we do about it?

Here is the problem. We know that England is only a middling country when it comes to the international league tables. The cause of this disappointing performance is the large group of schools where the education on offer is no more than satisfactory. Estimates vary, but according to Ofsted the quality of teaching and learning is no better than satisfactory in 40 per cent of schools, and 6,000 (out of around 20,000) schools only reached ‘satisfactory’ in their last Ofsted inspection.

As every parent knows, satisfactory is anything but – it is a classic piece of Orwellian jargon invented by the education establishment to cover up the mediocrity of much of what goes on in the classroom. At the turn of the year David Cameron took the brave step to call out this mediocrity, complaining about what he called a ‘hidden crisis’ in coasting schools. Together with the tough new head of Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw, they declared that satisfactory will no longer be good enough and that those schools which had been bumping along as satisfactory for years must improve or face the consequences.


So at last the long tail of underachievement has been exposed, but what can the government do about it? The good news is that the New Labour-style academies, where an outside sponsor takes over the schools and turns it around, have been effective. Education Secretary Michael Gove has doubled the number of these schools in the last two years, but there are still only 500 of these ‘sponsored’ academies compared to potentially thousands of schools that we now know to be underperforming.

This is where academy chains come in. These are groups of three or more schools bound together under a single educational vision, often under the leadership of a great head or a dynamic philanthropist, and the emerging evidence suggests that they can be even more effective at raising standards than standalone academies. So, I argue in my report, if turning a school into an academy doesn’t improve standards then it should be turned over to a successful chain.

My sincere hope is that, between them, ‘sponsored’ academies and academy chains will have the capacity to deal with the big rush of schools that Ofsted will have identified as requiring improvement. But my research suggests they won’t, on their own, be enough. There are only around 50 chains now; perhaps there will be 100 by next year. Clearly the government can’t just say to the parents of children in these weak schools: ‘Sorry, you’ll have to wait until we can find a sponsor or a chain’. That is totally unacceptable. And this is where we need to be open-minded and ask if the private sector can help. My belief is that it can, not by selling off the school or its assets, or any of the horror stories the left would have you believe, but by inviting education management organisations from every sector – profit or not-for-profit – to run these schools on behalf of their governing bodies, with payment related to whether they improve standards. This kind of practice is commonplace now across the public sector, from welfare-to-work to the NHS to prisoner rehab. Anyone objecting to the private sector trying where the state and voluntary sectors have failed is suffering from ideological prejudice. What matters is what works, as Tony Blair once said.

James O’Shaughnessy is a former Downing Street head of policy. His report, ‘Competition meets Collaboration: Helping school chains address England’s long tail of educational failure‘, is published today by Policy Exchange.

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  • eyebeams

    “emerging evidence” – where can data on this be had? All the instances of the word “evidence” in the document by Policy Exchange are merely qualified statements “some” “ample” etc – hmm ‘idealogical prejudice’ or wishful thinking…

  • SimonToo

    The profit issue is not a problem, but a chain of schools is. There are a number of chains in the public school sector now, but what parents find is that the head and the staff are looking over their shoulders at head office, rather than addressing the parents directly. When that happens, you are paying fees but getting the same (off-hand) treatment that a parent gets in the state sector.

  • dalai guevara

    It’s crystal clear why they shoud do that. Privatisation is the answer to all our problems, like:

    1- back to work programs – a4e, we love you
    2- security – g4s, we love you
    3- rail – first and virgin/ stagecoach, we love your stuff, especially when compared to French, Spanish or German publicly run services.
    4- PFI in the NHS – we love you, selfless contractors who bankrupt trusts one by one
    5- energy – we love your price hikes just before winter, totally unrelated to brent crude pricing, and hold all your shares because of it. easy money.
    6- banking – why oh why did we ever take over these privatised outperformers? Ah yes, a private loss was to be expected, so the only answer was nationalisation.

    Broken Britain.

    • Archimedes

      “Privatisation is the answer to all our problems”

      Was the article not clear that privatisation might be a part of the solution – not the only answer?

      This part, for example, seemed fairly straightforward to me (hint: “…And this is where…”):

      “Clearly the government can’t just say to the parents of children in these weak schools: ‘Sorry, you’ll have to wait until we can find a sponsor or a chain’. That is totally unacceptable. And this is where we need to be open-minded and ask if the private sector can help.”

      • dalai guevara

        Part – I agree with that.

        What I intended to reiterate was that we all know why in Britain, we cannot afford to run any of these things (not all, but in particular not good schools) in public ownership: it is because the likes of Phil Green, Boots, mobile network providers, Starbucks, Amazon etc etc do not pay their fair share in tax.

        We also know that Germany can afford some of these services (not all of them) in public ownership, because by and large, they pay their fair share in taxes.

        It is – as always – as simple as that.

        • Archimedes

          You seem to be a little vacuous. This is nothing to do with affordability, it’s to do with standards – outsourcing parts of the education system to the private sector is probably not going to make it cheaper.

          “Fair share” again, is it? What do you mean by “fair share”? Is that when someone else’s tax contribution becomes so large that it benefits you? Yes, I see…that can be applied in quite an expansive way.

          If you want Starbucks to pay tax in the UK, then it’s pretty simple: lower the corporation tax rate, and Dutch companies will be buying their coffee beans from their UK subsidiaries, which will help our current account balance also.

          • dalai guevara

            Vacuity not intended – it’s a matter of ratio.

            I sould have also added, that it is of course not a l l down to proper taxation, but is largely dependent on a second, very important premise.

            The Civil Service has its history in Prussian tradition. Sometimes, I cannot but wonder whether our ‘unbiased inefficiency’, if I may call it that, is another reason for failure to deliver at cost.

  • TomTom

    Nothing to do with Profit or Private Sector it is simply about S E L E C T I O N and without it you will have dross private schools – they litter the landscape in affluent areas. It is about having an end to silly Slogans in place of Mottoes – with risible statements such “Excellence for All” or other such mindless drivel. Education is a game and private companies want to make money which is the basis of the GATS
    Agenda under the World Trade Organisation. Why we get peddled this rubbish is unclear –

    Go read what Robert Clift wrote about GATS in Canada:
    GATS were applied to the Canadian education
    sector, the effects would be profound. Education would no longer be
    a public service; instead it would be categorized as merely another
    enterprise. The Canadian government then would be required under GATS to
    access to the Canadian “education market” to companies from any of the
    signatory countries. Foreign companies would be treated at least as
    as Canadian companies, but in certain circumstances would be treated
    favourably. For example, the Canadian government could not require that
    companies place Canadians on the governing boards of their operations
    in Canada, or even that the company hire Canadian teachers. Also,
    companies would be protected from those regulations that could be viewed
    peripheral to the delivery of the service, such as licensing
    Furthermore, public funds currently provided to public institutions
    would also
    have to be provided to private institutions or potentially be subject to
    as an unfair subsidy.[3]

  • DavidDP

    Yes, but where do you stand on calling people plebs?

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