Stories + Views
Why profit making free schools may not be what parents want
This story in yesterday’s Observer gives us a useful insight into why profit making schools may not be as popular or successful as some people might suggest. It concerns the management of the fee-paying Southbank International School in London, which is run by Cognita, a for profit chain run by former Ofsted Chief Inspector Chris Woodhead. Southbank has a number of sites in London and it seems the parents aren’t happy very happy with the way Cognita’s money making activities are interfering with their children’s education. According to the Observer, parents at the school have set up their own pressure group to campaign against what they see as Cognita’s tendancy to put the bottom line before their children’s day to day experience in the classroom.
Supporters of profit making schools, to which Michael Gove has said he has no ‘ideological objection’ like to argue that the introduction of unadulterated market forces into the state sector will ensure schools improve and students will get a better education. They usually also like to argue that parents won’t care one way or another . However this story seems to prove quite the reverse. The profit motive can take precedence over quality and parents care a great deal about that.
There is of course a distinction within the private sector. There are the privates schools that claim charitable status ( at a cost to the state of around £100million a year) and there are those the choose, like Cognita, to do away with the pretence that they are providing benefit to society more generally ( and in my experience Woodhead is at least refreshingly honest on this point) and go for the bottom line. Until now arguments on the rights and wrongs of these approaches have been confined to a small minority of schools that educate around 7% of the population.
However opening up of the state school market to other providers means that this could become a very real issue to the remaining 93% of parents and pupils. Cognita is in discussions with some free school proposers, and also working with the New Schools Network. The law already allows for free school proposers to set up a charitable trust and then sub-contract the running of their schools to private, profit making, companies.
But as the Southbank parents are finding out, this is not without risks. Private companies that run outsourced services are not acountable in the same way as maintained schools, and if there is spare cash around, many parents might prefer to see that going into their children’s education, rather than into the pockets of directors and shareholders. Moreover there are many things that state schools do that are not strictly educational, very hard to quantify, and don’t lend themselves to a profit-and-loss approach – social cohesion, inclusion, child well being for example. Would a company like Cognita be interested in these. Somehow I doubt it.