“They create a prison and call it freedom.” Schools, education providers and autonomy
“They create a desert and call it peace,” said Calgacus, leader of the Britons, in the first century AD. He wasn’t just denouncing the Romans as enemies in wartime. He was also condemning the distortion of language. The Romans came as conquerors but called their occupation peace.
What has this to do with English schools today? The answer is: freedom. Mr Gove sells the academy conversion programme and the free schools policy with the promise of freedom. Schools who convert will be free from local authority (LA) bureaucracy. Free schools will give groups the freedom to run a school in the way they want.
But were English schools crushed by LA control in the first place? The evidence suggests not. Local Management of Schools allowed each state school to make educational decisions and control its finances. The part of the budget a school didn’t control was the small portion retained by LAs for legal and administrative duties. And the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) surveyed UK heads in 2009 and found that heads of UK schools already enjoyed more autonomy than in most other countries.
So in exchange for the small slice of the school budget that a school didn’t control an academy has to take responsibility for all the backroom services previously provided by the LA. Far from being free of these tasks as LA schools are, academies take on extra burdens which divert attention from their main responsibility: education.
But they can join chains, can’t they? John Burns, OBE, a supporter of academies, warned about the dangers of academy chains. He said that academies in “bureaucratic Federations” could “put to an end the very freedoms that individual schools were supposed to enjoy. Putting Academies into Federations can lead to individual Academies losing a large measure of control over their budgets and the appointment of staff, something which even maintained schools enjoy.”
What about free schools? Surely the groups who set them up can run them as they want? Not necessarily. If they hand over the running of the school to an education provider then they relinquish control of the school. And if the education provider is a profit-making company then some of the money from taxpayers given to the school’s Trustees will end up with shareholders rather than being invested in education.
But didn’t Mr Gove say in September 2011 that “we don’t need to have profit-making organisations involved at the moment”? Yes, he did, but his words are contradicted by what was going on behind the scenes. Eleven months before, in October 2010, IES Sweden announced that the UK Government was “actively seeking” IES as a “potential provider” for free schools. IES has just been awarded a ten-year £21 million pound contract to run the proposed Breckland Free School and expects to receive 5%-8% profit after the first couple of years. The proposers compare this with the 15% kept back by the LA. However, they don’t say that none of this 15% is retained by the LA for ”profit”. Neither do they say - perhaps they don’t fully realise – that it won’t be the Trustees making decisions about what services to buy or who will be the Principal. It will be the education provider who will have more control over the school than any LA ever had.
”They create a prison and call it freedom.”
UPDATE: 19 October 2012
In September 2012, Internationella Engelska Skolan (IES) was taken over by private equity firm, TA Associates who were looking for school companies in which to invest. At the same time, the Swedish Government is starting an enquiry into the long-term motivation of the profit-making companies that run most of Sweden’s free schools. Bertil Ostberg, State Secretary for Education in Sweden, one of the pioneers of Swedish free schools, told BBC Radio 4’s The Report (11/10/12) that the Swedish Government wanted assurances from the owners of free schools that they are interested in long-term engagement and would not sell the schools for short-term gain. Bringing in the profit motive, he said, resulted in conflicting interests – those of the child versus the needs of shareholders for a financial return.