SSAT; CONCERNS OVER ITS PERFORMANCE AND ITS MARKET ACTIVITIES
The Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, originally established to support Specialist schools, has expanded exponentially to support the Academies initiative, and in a case of mission creep writ large, is now busy chasing new contracts and revenue streams abroad.
The SSAT, self evidently, is under pressure to support its top heavy management structure.
Quango managers have big salaries, public sector pensions and expense accounts to support. But, one has to ask, why the SSAT has expanded so much in recent years and indeed why it is continuing to do so against the backdrop of current economic conditions as, even now, it continues to recruit senior staff. Couldn’t the private and not for profit sectors do the SSATs job as well (if that job is, indeed, necessary) and at less cost?
So keen is the SSAT to identify new income streams that it has been looking abroad for new business. Here it uses tax payers money and the UK balance sheet to win business against other UK private and not for profit education companies, taking contracts from under their noses. Unsurprisingly these same unsubsidized UK suppliers are a bit miffed and cry unfair competition. They are now beginning to ask why the SSAT is allowed to get away with it, while the Government sits on the sidelines.
Important questions are now being asked about the SSAT, its effectiveness, accountability and its activities in the market. Because it is tax funded, unlike its competitors, the SSAT lacks competitive neutrality.
When it competes for contracts it is at a significant advantage and its participation in the market increases the costs and risks of other unsubsidized providers of participating in that market. This acts as a brake on expansion of that market in an area where UK suppliers could have a competitive advantage. It is not just fair competition that is being undermined here it is contestability too, which the government is so keen to promote. A contestable market is one in which entry and exit are absolutely costless. In such a market, competitive pressures supplied by the perpetual threat of entry, as well as by the presence of actual current rivals, can prevent monopoly behaviour (higher prices and restricted output) The SSATs activities raises the costs of entry which therefore threaten contestability. This issue is not arcane, it is one vital to the future of the UK education market and our chances of remaining competitive in the global markets. The SSAT recently won a contract in the Middle East to support schools amid cries of unfair competition. One wonders whether its new client looked at its track record. It’s an organisation with, at best, a patchy record.
True, some of what the SSAT does in UK schools is good ,identification and dissemination for instance of best practice springs to mind and you will find that it has admirers including Heads Consultants and providers who have worked with, or for it. But, and it’s a big but- how successful is it?
Does it secure best value for the taxpayer? Does it add value and measure its outputs effectively? How does it measure or benchmark its performance? To whom is it accountable? Indeed, couldn’t much or indeed all of its work be done by private or third sector providers and at less cost? And a question that is never asked by civil servants and politicians, when it competes with other UK providers doesn’t it have an unfair advantage in that it is grant funded and lacks transparency ? Why is it being given contracts without those contracts being put out to open tender? Surely that can’t secure best value for the taxpayer?
Lets look at the SSATS performance. Significantly, the Government uses five good GCSEs (A*-C Grades), including maths and English, as a key performance benchmark. Not the SSAT though. While supporting over ninety per cent of state schools, it judges itself on the ‘contextual added value’ in its schools. Around half of pupils in the schools the SSAT supports achieve five good GCSEs including maths and English. If you include a language and a science this is closer to 25%. One doesn’t have to be a cynic to work out why the SSAT uses CVA. CVA has its uses but these are limited .It also has its detractors. Professor Harvey Goldstein of the Institute of Education criticizes the methodology used by the SSAT to measure CVA. For example it is based on an analysis of mainly school level ,rather than pupil level data, and doesn’t take into account all relevant contextual factors, such as the percentage of pupils eligible for free school meals. The contextual added value measurement, in any case, is not understood by most stakeholders, particularly parents and is, crucially, ignored by admissions tutors and employers. If you don’t understand the data you are unlikely to be able to make an informed decision or choice. This lack of clarity also means that the SSAT is less accountable. So, one wonders why the SSAT uses it as a benchmark or rather is allowed to use it as such.
Stephen Gorard, Professor of Education Research at the School of Education, University of Birmingham claims that CVA is little more than a con. He explains “The propagation of errors in the incomplete and necessarily error-prone datasets on school intakes and outcomes means that the resultant figures from the complex zero-sum calculations are meaningless.” He adds that Grammar schools have good examination results because they select just those children at age 11 who are likely to do well at age 16 on similar kinds of tests. Schools with deprived intakes tend to have low outcome scores for a number of reasons, including differences in family education and parental support, high pupil mobility, pupils for whom English is a second language, and higher incidence of special needs.
So, in short, almost all of the variation between school outcomes is explained by the variation in the nature of the school intakes. This hardly comes as news to Heads and Governors. So, when the SSAT start making claims over how much their schools ‘add value,’ look at the fine print. And, what about the ‘Specialist status’ of Specialist schools? Does Specialist status ‘add-value’. Indeed does it mean anything? Professor Alan Smithers and Dr Pamela Robinson of the University of Buckingham showed in a recent report that specialist schools appear to do better because poorer performing schools were not granted specialist status. Their report found “Specialist schools were found to add more value than non-specialist schools, but since adding value is part of the approval process they would have been the more effective in the first place.” So, in short, from the beginning, specialist schools have been creamed off, leaving a progressively weaker residual pool. The SSAT then, disingenuously, compares its schools with the ten per cent rump that is left. Professor Smithers said: “All the SSAT’s comparisons amount to is that if you take effective schools and give them extra money they do better than less effective schools without extra money.” In short the main benefit schools saw in being specialist was… err… the extra money. Many Heads will tell you that they apply for specialist status simply because it means their school will access more funding and for no other reason. More funding, of course, generally, though not always, means better results. And how Specialist are Specialist schools? More than a quarter of the country’s specialist science schools, for instance, failed to enter a single candidate for a physics, chemistry or biology GCSE last year. Instead, they opted to put pupils in for what everyone knows to be the less stretching -”double science” exam. The percentage of pupils choosing to study three separate core science subjects at GCSE barely improved from 1997 to 2007, with the figures for those years being 6 per cent and 8 per cent respectively At A level of the 433 schools identified as having a specialism in sciences, just 269 teach pupils to Key Stage 5 and, of these, three did not enter any pupils for a single A-level in the science subjects in 2008. Small wonder then that top universities complain that they are largely reliant for their intakes in maths and the sciences on pupils from abroad and the independent sector. And only a handful of the 350 specialist language colleges (4.3 per cent), it transpires, were putting every pupil in for a GCSE in the subject.
Tellingly, Christine Gilbert, the head of Ofsted, has suggested that the money spent on specilaist schools might be better utilised. She said in 2007 “Across a range of subjects, inspectors reported that they visited some schools where there was little to suggest that specialism had made a difference in terms of the fundamentals of classroom teaching. This is a serious criticism. If teaching had not improved, it’s hard to see that learning would.” David Laws MP, education spokesman of the Liberal Democrats agreed “The Government’s ‘specialist’ school initiative has been about creating the illusion of diversity without making any real difference to schools’ ability to innovate and offer meaningful change. The whole initiative may have been counterproductive by excluding the extra funding from schools in deprived areas who have not been able to qualify for specialist status. Targeting money away from the most needy schools is clearly absurd.”
So it is hard not to conclude that the label ‘Specialist’ looks pretty threadbare, little more than a crude marketing tool, with little or no substance behind it. It is equally clear that the SSAT has some serious questions to answer on the effectiveness of its so called specialist schools, as well as its anti-competitive activities in the education market both here and abroad.
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