TOO MANY PRACTICAL BARRIERS TO SETTING UP STATE SCHOOLS
Think tank recommends measures for removing obstacles and supports the profit motive
A Policy Exchange/New Schools Network Report ‘Blocking the Best’ released this week examines the barriers which prevent new providers from running state schools and claims that Academies freedoms have been badly eroded .
Unlike most other education systems there is no mechanism in our state sector by which parents and children, rather than local or national bureaucracies, decide whether a new school should be created. The report says that whatever the rhetoric of the three political parties, unless they deal with these practical barriers to setting up schools – and the limits on what those schools can do – a thriving system of independent, state-funded schools will never come into existence.
The obstacles in place for those who want to try and establish a school are identified including , for example, a ponderous approval process and overly restrictive planning and building procedures .The report also looks at restrictions on academy independence which curb innovation, including bureaucratic and poorly-focused accountability mechanisms and interference by central and local government.
One of the biggest obstacles, of course, to providers getting involved in running state schools is that they cant make a profit from their engagement nor will they be able to under current Tory proposals. The Shadow Education Secretary, Michael Gove ,who helped set up Policy Exchange in the first place and was its first Chairman, speaking at the launch this week encouaged suppliers such as CFBT Education Trust and Serco to become involved in running new free schools. But he would not give ground on the profit issue, which placed him at odds with the authors of this report. Policy Exchange was very specific about the profit issue. The report states “ There is no doubt that the politics are not easy. However, if we seek a large number of chains to drive expansion in the schools sector then this is one nettle that will need to be grasped. Barring profit reduces the pool of organisations which want to set up several schools, and means those that do exist do not have a direct incentive to expand.”
Both private sector providers and charities are keen to make a surplus from any involvement with schools so they can invest that surplus in the future, building up chains of schools,creating the necessary economies of scale, as happens in Sweden and the United States .Indeed one of the leading lights of Sweden’s free schools movement ,Anders Hultin, has gone as far as to say that Sweden’s schools supply revolution would not have happened had it not been for the profit motive. Perversely, in this country, though, while we allow profit making companies to run ‘Special schools’, dealing with our most challenging pupils, prisoners education, including that of young offenders , to provide school improvement services to state schools and indeed to inspect schools ,we don’t allow them to run them. This makes no sense at all. And this constant invocation of the Swedish model is bogus if you remove the key driver that has made it workable and sustainable-the profit motive.
The report rubbishes the Governments new suppliers accreditation system for Academy schools introduced in February 2010. This new process states that local authorities should be acting as ‘strategic commissioners’ of schools, and that they can now select from the pool of Accredited School Providers and Groups when looking for “a lead sponsor for an academy or lead partner for a majority trust or federation.” So, sponsors are now divided into those allowed to run a single school and those allowed to run several. Policy Exchange believes this delivers the worst of all worlds. Under the new system the organisations must show evidence of “track record, capacity and educational expertise”. As a result the type of sponsor has moved from those with business backgrounds to education organisations: further education (FE) colleges, universities, schools and local authorities themselves. It dramatically reduces too the pool of potential providers. Many of the existing, highly successful sponsors of several academies would not have qualified with their first schools – or would not have been willing to enter – under this new system. Putting weight on existing education organisations makes it much less likely that innovation and new models will occur. Second, it confirms the local authority’s central role in deciding who should set up schools, what kind of schools they should be, and under what circumstances. Third, the new system judges a provider solely on its history, not its plans for the future. Rather than allowing any potential provider to demonstrate its vision and competence through an application and through future accountability, the Department for Children Schools and Families (DCSF) will presuppose its capability or lack of it according to the type of organisation involved. So this all looks regressive.
Its well worth looking at this report in detail if you are potentially interested in running state schools. Gove at the launch again mentioned the Knowledge is Power chain of Charter schools in the States set up by teachers which has delivered astonishing results by getting back to the basics with a robust curriculum good discipline, parental involvement, high quality pastoral care and extended school hours. If you want to know what the Tory vision is for free schools take a long hard look at the KIP model. But there is a long way to go before we get there. This report identifies pretty clearly what the main obstacles are to getting there with some useful recommendations attached but the Tories still have to work out how potential providers can make a surplus from their engagement with state schools and maybe the Edison model in Enfield (Salisbury school) might provide some clues in this respect