We don’t need little changes: why businesses should run Free Schools


Schools should be palaces

We don’t just need more and better teachers; we need more and better school models.

It’s in vogue at the moment to say that the way to improve schools is to have better teachers.  I don’t mean to be too dismissive by saying ‘in vogue’; it is more than just the latest, passing education trend.  There is solid evidence to support the assertion that effective classroom teaching is the best tool for addressing the intractable problems of educational disadvantage and underachievement.

The danger, however, of such a focus on teachers and classroom practice is that we ignore the importance of school structure – we ignore those things that create the conditions in which classroom teaching occurs: the size of a school, its assessment practices and data tracking, the number and types of staff and their responsibilities, the methods for informing and engaging parents.

These elements of school structure, added to a particular pedagogy, constitute the school model and are the difference between the vision and delivery of education provided by, for example, your local comprehensive, a Steiner school, Eton or the KIPP network of US charter schools.

Different models can be equally successful and some models will work better in some contexts than others, but sustainably successful models will share characteristics.  Effective school models don’t fail when inexperienced or temporary teachers enter.  Nor do effective models rely on heroes:  the exceptional teacher whose influence extends out of their classroom and into the corridors around creating an island of calm until a corner is turned and chaos resumes.

To a lesser or greater extent these symptoms are common in many of our schools today, and they indicate a failure of the model.  Despite massive investment over the last ten years there has been little innovation in school models.  It’s become almost a cliché to say that most of our schools are based on a nineteenth century factory model of how education should be delivered:  large numbers of pupils moving from station to station, regulated by bells – education mass produced.

Surely the clearest indication of systemic failure, of failure on a large scale of the current school model, is that half of all 16 year-olds do not achieve at least a grade C in GCSE maths and English. (This CBI report presents some other interesting findings.)

Putting a teacher into a bad school model is hugely inefficient – it both dramatically increases the amount of time a new teacher takes to become effective, and actually caps the value that even a good teacher can add.  Even if we could still afford the investment in education of the last decade, throwing more teachers into bad schools would be hugely wasteful.  We need new models.

Two types of system redesign are needed.

1.  We need new school models that work in the twenty-first century.  These models are likely to rethink how cohorts of pupils are organised and how staff are held accountable for them.  They’re likely to make far better use of real-time assessment data and to better connect parents with their children’s education.  Maybe these models will  go further, breaking long held assumptions about how education should be delivered, like Dennis Littky’s Big Picture schools, Ted Sizer’s Coalition of Essential Schools or the pioneering New York City-As-School.

2.  We need to create an environment in which new models are able to emerge.  This point is worth making again:  despite massive investment in education, despite an intervening explosion in internet technology, despite entering a new century in which the experience of adulthood is dramatically different to the last school models remain largely the same as they were not just ten years ago, but probably 50 years ago.

This is why many of the Coalition’s education reforms are sensible.  The supply side revolution, making it easier to establish a new school, is about creating the conditions for new models to emerge.

But the Coalition could go one step further to ensure that the best possible models are amongst those that are launched.

To find the best models let the best providers into the system.

At the moment businesses cannot directly run Free Schools.  Instead they’re required to add a layer of cost and bureaucracy by establishing charitable vehicles that then contract school services.  This seems absurd.  Why is there a hang-up about profit making in education?  One intellectually pure argument is to denounce capitalism and the profit motive, but even most on the political left don’t share that view.  We currently allow schools to buy all manner of services from profit making businesses even down to the management and running of a school, yet companies are prohibited from operating schools directly.

Enabling private companies to run schools directly brings two things to British education.  The first is a proliferation of new school models developed using principles and processes more often found in businesses than schools:  a sharper focus on collecting and acting on real time data, for example, or a better alignment of organisational structure with outcomes.

The second is investment and the better allocation of resources.  In these financially constrained times, business has the means to fund capital investment.  Capital investment in education means new, purpose built schools. Business also understands economies of scale.  Crucially the private sector is better placed to understand the difference between the economies of scale that could be achieved by a network of schools sharing well-managed back-room functions such as HR and data management, and the diseconomies of scale that are rife in the current model which is for schools to be large and stand-alone.

Our education system as a whole needs to be more dynamic, characterised by more innovation more often.  We need to find the models that will work for the kids that are currently being failed.  To achieve this we need to allow the best education providers to enter the field.  Any increase in supply may mean that bad schools will close, but the spectre of turmoil that critics present if businesses were to enter the education sector is misplaced.  With brands to protect and having signed contracts whose pay-out depends on their long-term delivery, it is a mistake to assume that education businesses do not value stability.  And exactly what is the value of stability in a stagnating system that shores up, but does not fix, failing schools?  Moreover, the closer we can move to a real-time per-pupil funding method the less disruptive it will be to allow failing schools to close.

What we’re not talking about is some kind of unregulated free for all.  There are legitimate fears about the role of business in education and they can be assuaged by creating an appropriate regulatory framework.  It is important that government, at local or national level, undertakes effective commissioning, requiring new schools to adhere to the Admissions Code and to be inspected by Ofsted, for example, or even going further and ensuring that schools run for profit adhere to a national curriculum, or minimum pay requirements for teachers.

More radically, the government could set bold strategic objectives for for-profit Free Schools, setting contractual requirements that they narrow the achievement gap of disadvantaged pupils in their care.   Market mechanisms like the pupil premium provide an incentive to serve poor communities, but there’s no reason why in addition this couldn’t be explicitly stipulated in an agreement with an education provider.  It seems that the critics of for-profit schools lack faith in the ability of government to set strategic objectives, to commission and to hold to account.

Arguing that businesses should be allowed to run schools need not be an anti-state, small government argument.  I believe in a strong state that intervenes to look after the most vulnerable.   My favourite West Wing speech is this one:

“Education is the silver bullet. Education is everything. We don’t need little changes. We need gigantic, monumental changes.  Schools should be palaces. The competition for the best teachers should be fierce. They should be making six-figure salaries. Schools should be incredibly expensive for government and absolutely free of charge for its citizens, just like national defense.”

And my second favourite is this:

“We have to say what we feel, that government no matter what it’s failures in the past, and in times to come for that matter…can be a place where people come together and where no one gets left behind…An instrument of good.”

I’m not arguing for the private sector to be involved in education in order to minimise the role of government, or from some free market ideology, but because I think it has the potential to implement new models that are more effective – that can better implement progressive policy objectives.  We will need to regulate for-profit education providers, and tax them, and we may want to first run pilots in some of the most deprived parts of the country, but I see no reason why we should prohibit a company from investing in British education on the basis that they may make a profit.


2 thoughts on “We don’t need little changes: why businesses should run Free Schools”

  1. Hi Jacob, apart from anything else, you’ve used quote from one of my favourite West Wing episodes. And for that I salute you…

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