Stories + Views
A reply to James Croft, author of “Profit-Making Free Schools”, a report by the Adam Smith Institute
I don’t think I have misunderstood James Croft’s fundamental thesis at all, as he claims here on his blog. The problem I have with it is that the report, in recommending the government to relax their “insistence” that free schools should be run as trusts and allow for-profit organizations to open and run free schools, provides the DfE with a very timely and convenient excuse to “reluctantly” do “another” U-turn on policy and open up free schools to private companies.
The report is published at a time when the government has admitted the current growth of academies and free schools is financially untenable, when teacher union conferences have laid bare their opposition to free schools, when teacher representatives have expressed their dismay that the government do not listen to their concerns over a wide variety of educational matters including free schools and when the DfE is under increasing pressure to publish funding agreements for free schools and to justify how diverting an already shrunken education budget away from the maintained schools towards academy conversions and funding free schools benefits the educational system in this country as a whole.
The Adam Smith Institute has been referred to as a ”rightwing thinktank”, so Mr. Croft should forgive me for reading the report with a degree of scepticism. Such scepticism is compounded further when Sam Bowman’s article of the report is planted in The Spectator, a magazine which numbers Free School founder Toby Young amongst its editors and which recently hosted a Free School Conference attended by Michael Gove.
Mr. Croft make the case that England’s proprietorial (for-profit) independent school do significantly better (presumably in just academic achievement) than all-independent schools and that “the need to make a profit clearly focuses minds on ensuring high quality educational outcomes and that putting quality first is rather the most important condition for the possibility of a successful proprietorial school business”. But he make no mention that Cognita, one of the companies cited in his report and run by Chris Woodhead, has been accused by parents in Southbank International School, one of its independent schools, of “milking profits” at the expense of children’s education and turning it into a “money-making machine”.
I am now left wondering how impartial and objective his association with Mr. Woodhead is and whether there is yet another motive for the promotion of private sector funds to run schools paid for by the impoverished tax payer.
Since Cognita claimed on its website to be working with a number of parents on free school projects and advertised its services on the government-funded New Schools Network, then the accusations against it do not bode well for when for-profit enterprises enter state maintained schools. I gave the two examples of Charter schools in Ohio and Florida suing private management companies to illustrate how the ideologies of private enterprise and state funded education may be so incompatible as to lead to litigation, as they have done in America.
I would agree with Mr. Croft that schools need strong management but that applies to LA maintained schools as well as any other type. The problem is that if free schools are set up by a steering committee and board with little more collective experience than “vision” rather than an interest in, or the confident experience of, the minutiae of running, maintaining and developing a new school, then the easiest option would be to spend tax payers’ money on farming out the responsibility to companies like Cognita. Some Charter Schools in America have wrested back control and now have strong boards but it took a great deal of effort and litigation to get it back.
Charter Schools remain controversial and the question of whether they have raised educational standards, regardless of for-private company intervention, across the board and in particular on disadvantaged Americans reveal an inconvenient truth – that Charter Schools have not successfully transformed the overall landscape of American schools for the better and in ways that their supporters would like us to believe. Many people would not consider raw data on exam or academic achievement as being the sole yardstick with which to judge a school but for those who are interested, then the CREDO study from Stanford University may be of interest.
This student progress on math tests in half the nation’s five thousand charter schools and concluded that 17 percent were superior to a matched traditional public school; 37 percent were worse than the public school; and the remaining 46 percent had academic gains no different from that of a similar public school. The proportion of charters that get amazing results is far smaller than 17 percent. At attempt to challenge the collection of data by a pro-Charter supporter was successfully rebutted by Stanford University. I also found this report and the research and other reports linked to it very illuminating so Mr. Croft might like to refer to it.
Laura McInerney’s brochure “The Six Predictable Failures of Free Schools…and how to avoid them” explains that the recently deceased American academic Seymour Saranson spent 50 years studying education reforms in American and over 25 years looking at Charter Schools. His body of work is vast and provides specific details of the failures and successes of new school settings that opened in the US, yet many people currently planning Free Schools have no knowledge of his work. The failure to understand how difficult it is to run a school is the main reason why so many US Charter Schools contracted for profit making organizations and why so many floundered. I hope that Croft is correct in his assertions that the Secretary of State for Education has learnt from the American mistakes and will do it better here but so far the signs are not encouraging, not least because the lack of transparency from the government and the recent series of gaffes from Michael Gove do not inspire confidence.
Mr. Croft states that the licence to operate a free school comes with “actually fairly stringent requirements” and could be “revoked by the Secretary of State”. However, with the neutering of the powers of the Chief School Adjudicator and free schools being independent of LA supervision, the bodies of impartiality and fairness have been removed and the Secretary of State acts as judge and executioner. Free Schools are at the forefront of education policy, so the reputation of the Secretary of State is at stake – how likely is he to “fail” a free school?
The Adam Smith Institute is referred to as a “Rightwing” thinktank so, however exhaustive this report may be, it will be read as biased towards to the needs of the present government. The report put me in mind of Davis Guggenheim’s pro-Charter propagandist documentary film “Waiting for Superman” (which I have seen) in which he focused his attention on only a handful of successful charter schools, failed to show that in one school the operator kicked out his entire first class of middle school students when they didn’t get good enough test scores to satisfy his board of trustees and glossed over how they failed to raise educational standards for the poor. As Diane Ravitch says “Why did Davis Guggenheim pay no attention to the charter schools that are run by incompetent leaders or corporations mainly concerned to make money? Why propound to an unknowing public the myth that charter schools are the answer to our educational woes, when the filmmaker knows that there are twice as many failing charters as there are successful ones? Why not give an honest accounting?” A critique of the film by Diane Ravitch is here.
Mr. Croft states that “the real issue is the quality of management, not whether the school is run for profit or a charitable undertaking” but in inexperienced or amateur, time-challenged hands, this is easier said than done, so the lure of companies such as Cognita would be irresistible, but potentially conflicting, to the best provision of education. If, as he says, “the government should relax present constraints on the type of organisations that can set-up and manage free schools. In respect of the entry of proprietorial school business goes, this brings the added advantage of new sources of capital funding, which the Department of Education sorely needs” then the reports of how this initiative is causing problems in America needs to be highlighted and given much wider circulation.
In the meantime, this report hands Michael Gove the excuse he needs to placate voters, shore up the free school policy and cause more chaos in our educational system. I don’t think I have misunderstood it at all.