Are Big sponsors taking over?

Are parents groups still welcome?


Michael Gove held a workshop style meeting recently according to a source on the blogosphere, (Mark Balcombe) to discuss the James Report on capital funding, which has just been published . Last year just  £50 million was set aside for free schools ( the financial year 2010-11) to meet their capital needs.  Not enough say critics..Beyond that, provision forms part of the overall spending review settlement for schools.  In short, future allocations for free schools have yet to be decided.

It is noteworthy though that at this meeting along with Sebastian James  were the bigger multiple academy sponsors, and a  few close advisors to Gove. The meeting appears to confirm the perception that the Government is looking now  to the big chains of Academy providers to deliver on the Free school initiative.

Unsurprisingly, James ,wrestling with the challenges of capital funding, didn’t write his report alone. There was input from Lewisham Council’s chief executive Barry Quirk, Kevin Grace of Tesco John Hood, former Vice-Chancellor of University of Oxford and Sir John Egan, former Chief Executive of Jaguar and BAA. The last three all work for companies which have, so far, had no involvement in sponsoring academies.  The meeting was called at short notice and was held at the Sanctuary Buildings in Great Smith Street, London SW1.  The  Multiple sponsors were there together with New Schools Network’s Rachel Wolf plus various government officials, including from Quango Partnerships for Schools. (which has been criticised for allowing  wasteful spending on the old  BSF progrmme)

Representing sponsors were: Charles Parker, operations director of the Edge Foundation and who left PfS last Summer, 2010, Sir Bruce Liddington of E-ACT, Ian Cleland of Ormiston, Rob Gwynne, the Church’s head of school development at the national level and at least one of his colleagues and Lucy Heller, managing director of Absolute Return for Kids (ARK).

Recent criticism of the free schools project has focused on the lack of funding available and the unsuitability of some groups seeking to set up free schools, either based on their capability, or their faith beliefs. As the Sunday Times has pointed out, Gove’s  apparent shift in policy has come partly because more than 320 formal applications for free schools — far more than anticipated — have already been submitted by groups unhappy with local schooling. The Department is working at the moment with around 40 free school bids some of which  will open this September.

Those who were not invited to the meeting will be wondering whether the DfE will stick with this group of ‘preferred’ suppliers and make it difficult for other suppliers to get involved and almost make it virtually impossible for parents groups to go it alone, without one of the big chains in support from the start.

Gove  supports in principle  parents groups setting up schools (he admires the idealism of these little platoons getting involved in their communities while also being sensitive to claims that they are self-serving middle class parents or faith fundamentalists)  but with over 300 proposals submitted and with resources tight he wanted a more focused approach and for the ‘oddballs’ to be weeded out early on to pre-empt wasted effort, resources and of course, bad publicity too. The big chains can, of course,    deliver economies of scale, with more efficient back office procurement. They  can  pool resources and  train and share   leadership teams, share best practice  and  also clearly  have  the resources and critical mass  that offers some security. They can  move quickly too  with most skills on tap – as well as  having a track record on which they might be judged and which can reassure parents (although this can have a downside)

The bottom line is that parents will now  find it much harder to set up schools alone (ie the Toby Young; West London model)  and they will improve their chances measurably by teaming up early on with professionals .  Some  welcome this move-not least because the whole process of setting up free schools has become politicised leaving small groups, without top cover, vulnerable.

Certainly the process in setting up these schools, probably inevitably,   is becoming much  more bureaucratic and although the New Schools Network is doing what it can to help parents groups its resources are stretched and it doesn’t necessarily have the in house support to  offer anything but fairly  basic, though useful, advice and support.  This Government knows it has to deliver a model that entices the large providers, but seeks to do this without  it being obvious that they are profiting from their engagement. Its a difficult circle to square.  In the meantime  all funding to parents, that want help from a consultant to put together their business case, has been stopped, it seems  .Of course,  some pro bono support  continues to be  available from some companies who are expecting a return, further down the line.

But the Gove team have irritated some in the private sector for their failure to embrace the profit motive or fully acknowledge its key role in Sweden’s free school and US Charter schools success, even suggesting in recent briefings that the not for profit Charters in the States tend to be more innovative than the profit making enterprises (although evidence in support of this claim is hard to find). The fact is that in both Sweden and the States for profits and not for for profits have both been essential for their supply side  reforms.  Nonetheless there has been a perceived shift by the Gove team away from the Swedish model and towards the Charter model and particularly the not for profit example set by KIPP.

One big problem  is that   most  in government  have no experience   of running any enterprise seeking a margin ,  or  first  hand experience of what makes  enterprises or indeed markets    tick-or what  constitutes  an incentive or disincentive-and,  unfortunately, it shows.

The private  sector  think, or hope  that in due course Gove will have to tap into their expertise and capital to up- scale this initiative. The original idea or ‘vision’  for  free schools did not envisage the whole free schools landscape being entirely  dominated by a handful of Academy chains, which looks, the way things are going,  to be the longer term outlook. .

Apart from the funding issue, a lack of suitable buildings and difficulties in planning permission continue to act as a brake on the free schools initiative. In the meantime private companies in the education sector, with  few new business opportunities at home to conjure with,  are in search of new opportunities abroad, where the level of support from government is,  as it is here, poor to non-existent, unless that is,  you  happen to be a  grant funded  quango,or linked to one.

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