ARK Schools: an example of philanthrocapitalism

Matthew Bennett's picture
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Earlier this month, the Department for Education announced that Amanda Spielman, the current chair of Ofqual, will be replacing Sir Michael Wilshaw as Chief Inspector of Schools.  Spielman has never been a teacher; her background is in corporate finance and management consultancy.  She is closely associated with ARK Schools, a multi-academy trust which runs 34 schools in London, Birmingham, Hastings and Portsmouth.  ARK Schools is the educational arm of an international children's charity founded in 2002 by a group of financiers.  The chair of the ARK Schools board, Paul Marshall, received a knighthood in the Queen’s Birthday Honours, for services to education and philanthropy.  He is the co-founder, with Ian Wace – chair of ARK’s global board – of Marshall Wace Asset Management Ltd, a big hedge fund.  Of the eight trustees of ARK Schools, five are hedge fund managers.  None have any background in education.

      Marshall also leads the DfE’s non-executive board.  He is one of a number of financiers whose philanthropic interest in schools has led them to become directly involved in government since 2010.  John Nash, the ‘academies minister’, was chair of Sovereign Capital, a private equity firm which invests in education services, until he was ennobled and made parliamentary under-secretary of state for schools in 2013.  Theodore Agnew, whose various business interests include a partnership in the private equity firm Somerton Capital, led the Academies and Free Schools Board at the DfE from 2013 to 2015.  The new head of the Board, Tom Attwood, is also chair of HG Capital.  All three men have their own multi-academy trusts.

      But ARK Schools is in a class of its own.  It is by far the most successful and influential MAT, a ‘system leader trust’ that is constantly name-checked by ministers.  ARK’s King Solomon Academy, in Marylebone, has been hailed as ‘the best non-selective school in England’.  The school serves an area with high levels of child poverty;  58% of its pupils are eligible for free school meals, and a significant number speak English as an additional language.  Last year’s exam results were indeed extraordinary:  93% of students achieved A* – C in five GCSEs, exceeding the government’s floor target by more than 50%.  If the story of the market-driven reform of public education in the USA and England is a story of miracles – the 'Tennessee miracle', the 'Florida miracle' – then perhaps this could be called the Marylebone miracle.

      The miracle was achieved using methods developed by American charter schools – more specifically, by the ‘charter management organisation’ known as KIPP (the Knowledge is Power Program).  ARK’s brand of ‘high quality inner city education’ is copied wholesale from KIPP, as Paul Marshall acknowledges:  ‘We model ourselves on the American KIPP schools that have 80 per cent on free school meals and send 80 per cent to university’.  Charter schools, publicly funded but privately controlled, have been instrumental in the growing marketisation and privatisation of American public education since the 1990s.  KIPP was established in 1994 by a pair of young teachers, and generously supported by philanthropists like Don and Doris Fisher, the founders of Gap clothes.  It now runs 183 schools in 20 states.  The schools are typically in inner city areas, serving ‘urban minority’ children.  According to the KIPP website, more than 87 per cent of their pupils are from low-income families, and 96 per cent are African-American or Latino.  KIPP’s educational philosophy boils down to the idea that the problems faced by these students – poverty, parental unemployment, racism, violence – are ‘no excuse’ for educational failure or underperformance.  They can be overcome by sheer force of ‘great teaching’, combined with ‘grit’ and ‘resilience’ on the part of pupils.

      KIPP and its many imitators – Uncommon Schools, Mastery Prep, Success Academy – exist in a symbiotic relationship with the accountability system imposed on American schools by George W. Bush.  The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 mandated annual testing in English and maths from the third to the eighth grade, setting a target of 100% proficiency by 2014.  Schools which failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress towards that target faced closure or ‘charterization’.  The system rapidly gave rise to what one observer calls an ‘achievement gap mania’, as the economic and social misery of ‘urban minority’ students, including the long-term underfunding of their schools, was manifested as measurable differences in performance in standardised state tests.  ‘Closing the attainment gap’ then took on a very specific meaning.  The imperative was to show that poor African American or Latino children could match or exceed the standardised test scores of their more privileged peers – or, to use the charter schools’ own rhetoric, that they could be made ‘college ready’ by a ‘rigorous’ academic education – even in districts where school budgets were being cut.

      In order to achieve this aim, KIPP developed a distinctive educational model, which has become known as ‘no excuses’ schooling.  Its main features are:  an extended school day, week, and year; an intensive focus on literacy and numeracy, at the expense of other areas of the curriculum; a standardised teaching method based on direct instruction and drilling, rather than interaction between students; a highly standardised curriculum, with ‘scripted’ lessons that are tightly focused on specific test and exam content; and micromanagement of students’ behaviour, using rigidly-applied systems of positive and negative reinforcement.  This is the model that was pioneered by KIPP, and copied by other charter chains, whether non-profit or for-profit.  It is geared towards a single aim:  maximizing test scores while controlling costs.  This ‘culture of training’, as Roger Titcombe puts it, has been introduced into English state schools by chains like ARK Schools and the Harris Federation.  The King Solomon Academy is, in fact, a near-perfect replica of a KIPP School, down to the motto – ‘Climbing the mountain to university’ – blazoned above the reception area (the US original is ‘Climbing the mountain to and through college’).

      It is not only a question of school culture, however.  Serious money has been put into securing the King Solomon Academy’s miraculous GCSE results.  At a time when the freezing of the education budget has left all schools facing a funding cut of around 8%, ARK academies are protected by the largesse of their sponsors.  A recent report by Schools Week claims that ARK Schools received £3.6 million of private funds last year – nearly £106,000 for each school in the chain.  In the brave new world of venture philanthropy, there is nothing wrong with using profits generated offshore – most hedge funds are domiciled outside the UK – to back a privately-controlled ‘network’ of schools, whose exam results are then held up as an example to defunded local authority schools.  After all, as the former chair of the ARK Schools board, Lord Fink, told the Evening Standard:  ‘everyone does tax avoidance at some level’.

      Paul Marshall’s hedge fund was originally domiciled in the Cayman Islands (in 2010, in response to an EU directive, the bulk of the funds were quietly moved to Ireland).  Marshall Wace LLP was briefly in the public eye in 2008, as one of the hedge funds that were short-selling bank shares during the crisis.  Like other hedge funds, it holds a diverse portfolio which includes education services alongside pharmaceuticals, IT, healthcare, retail, and so on.  The firm currently has positions in Pearson PLC and the Scholastic Corporation, for example, as well as in the TAL Education Group, a provider of after-school tutoring services in China.  Last September, Marshall Wace formed a ‘long-term partnership’ with the American company KKR, when the huge private equity firm took a 24.9% stake in the hedge fund.  Education is a significant part of KKR’s business.  In 2013, it acquired a big stake in Cognita, the chain of private schools founded by the late Chris Woodhead, Chief Inspector of Schools from 1994 to 2000 (Cognita told Education Investor magazine that it would use the new funds to drive its expansion into Asian and Latin American markets).  KKR also invests in Laureate Education, which runs more than 80 for-profit universities and colleges across the world, and Tarena International, ‘an innovative education platform that combines live-distance instruction, classroom-based tutoring and online learning modules to students in China’.

      The most dynamic sector of the global schools business is education technology.  The accountability systems that are reshaping public education in England and the USA are also creating new markets for tech and software companies.  The most important of these markets is, of course, the market in tests and assessments.  Last year, Fortune magazine reported that the US testing industry – a product of No Child Left Behind – was worth around $2.5 billion, having grown by 53% in just three years (the industry is dominated by Pearson).  And the business of testing is increasingly automated.  Here in England, the government’s latest test – the ‘multiplication tables check’ for 11-year-olds – is entirely on-screen.  The DfE claims that the new test is ‘an exciting opportunity to explore further ways of reducing burdens on teachers through innovative use of technology in testing and assessment’.

      Another growth area is data management – more precisely, the use of computer-based data systems to store and process test results and other information.  These ‘management information systems’ are close cousins of the computer business systems studied by Simon Head.  They allow schools’ senior leadership teams to track and assess the performance of both students and teachers in great detail – comparing, ranking, setting targets, and identifying those in need of ‘support’.  Such systems are an integral part of the ARK Schools model.  The trust’s sponsor profile, on the DfE website, describes a ‘highly data-driven culture’, in which ARK’s ‘central team’, led by CEO Lucy Heller, regularly receives ‘granular school performance information’ from the 34 academies, via ‘standardised systems for reporting to the centre’.  The information is analysed using ARK’s ‘data dashboards’, and used ‘to drive improvement and to hold school leaders to account’.  This highly centralised management structure, in which ‘decision making processes’ are reduced to the analysis of purely quantitative data – principally test and exam results – is partly the creation of Amanda Spielman, who was part of ARK Schools’ original management team.  It is difficult not to feel that this ‘school improvement model’ bears the stamp of her previous experience at KPMG, Kleinwort Benson and Nomura.

      The education technology industry is a world in which Silicon Valley start-ups – companies with names like Udacity and DreamBox, backed by ‘angel investors’ and hedge funds – share the field with big multinationals like Pearson.  In 2013, a team of market analysts estimated the value of the ‘ed tech’ market at $8.38 billion.  Investment may have increased by as much as 503% between 2010 and 2014, with hedge funds and private equity firms playing a leading role.  To give one example:  KKR, the private equity firm which now has a significant stake in Marshall Wace, also backs Weld North Holdings, an education investment company which ‘operates a platform of digital and SaaS [Software as a Service] education solutions’.  Weld North recently acquired Intellify Learning, a Boston-based start-up offering ‘a state-of-the-art cloud-based platform that provides learning analytics and data management services to collect, measure, store, access, distribute and visualize learning metrics’.

      ARK is currently developing its own data management service.  In January, the trust launched Assembly, ‘a secure cloud-based platform that connects existing school data systems’.  According to the project’s director, ‘one of the common threads that unites start-ups in ed tech is that they usually launch without a link to the MIS [management information system].  That limits uptake – and good companies have folded because of this.’  Assembly is, of course, a non-profit venture.

      ARK has also been experimenting with computer-based instruction.  In 2018, the trust plans to open the Pioneer Academy, ‘a new all-through blended learning school with an emphasis on technology’.  According to the proposal submitted to the DfE, blended learning is ‘the combination of traditional class-room based teaching [sic] with online learning’.  It was developed by American charter school operators like Rocketship and Carpe Diem.  Rocketship, founded in Silicon Valley in 2006, runs ‘a non-profit network of public elementary charter schools, serving primarily low-income students’.  Their educational model – described by a former employee as the ‘stripped-down efficiency model’ – has changed a number of times since 2006.  But one element remains constant:  pupils at Rocketship schools, who are aged five to ten, spend a significant part of each day engaged in ‘individualised learning’ – in other words, intensive test preparation – on computers.  John Danner, co-founder of the chain, believes that, as educational software improves, children could spend as much as 50 per cent of the school day learning from computers.  (Danner is now CEO of Zeal Learning, a for-profit company offering ‘the first blended tutoring platform in the world’.)  Rocketship staff are divided into ‘master teachers’  –  frequently young Teach for America recruits, whose training consists of a five-week summer camp  –  and hourly-paid assistants (‘individualised learning specialists’) without any kind of teaching qualification, who supervise online instruction.

      ARK’s Pioneer Academy – to be built on a disused football ground in Barnet – will use a version of Rocketship’s ‘classroom rotation model’.  This, in turn, ‘includes four sub-models: Station Rotation, Lab Rotation, Flipped Classroom, and Individual Rotation’.  This impressive-sounding taxonomy, part of the job ad for the founding principal of the new academy, is literally cut and pasted from a paper put out in 2013 by the equally impressive-sounding Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, in San Francisco.  Christensen, a professor of business administration at Harvard, is the guru of blended learning, and a firm believer in its potential to ‘disrupt’ existing systems of public education.  He sees the shift to computer-based instruction as a means of ‘eradicating rules that restrict class size and student-teacher ratios’.  ARK told the TES, rather more coyly, that blended learning offers ‘an opportunity for revised teacher roles’;  the Pioneer Academy proposal notes that online learning will be combined with ‘instruction and input from the teaching assistant’.  Clayton Christensen’s view is that ‘computer-based learning on a large scale is less expensive than the current labour-intensive system, and could solve the financial dilemmas facing public schools’.  ARK told the TES that blended learning will ‘improve cost efficiency through both staffing and school design efficiencies’.

      ARK has always had excellent political connections.  Paul Marshall, who is about to step down from the DfE’s non-executive board, is a big Lib Dem donor;  he was co-editor, with David Laws, of the Orange Book, and an adviser to Nick Clegg during the Coalition (Laws, once a schools minister, recently took a job with ARK).  Lord Fink, the previous chair of ARK Schools, is a former treasurer of the Conservative Party.  Baroness Sally Morgan, the one-time Blair aide who was chair of Ofsted from 2011 to 2014, has been an adviser to the ARK board since 2005.  (As Arpad ‘Arki’ Busson, one of the charity’s founders, told an interviewer in 2006: ‘Whether it is a Labour or Tory government is totally irrelevant to us’.)  Sir Michael Wilshaw was ARK’s Director of Education when he was appointed Chief Inspector of Schools; he will now be replaced by Spielman, the trust’s research and policy director until 2012.

      Ron Beller and Jennifer Moses have also been closely involved in ARK from the beginning.  Former Goldman Sachs executives, they co-founded the King Solomon Academy in 2007.  Beller remains chair of governors at KSA, and a trustee of ARK Schools, while Moses sits on ARK’s global board.  Something of a political power couple in New Labour’s final years – Moses was briefly head of Gordon Brown’s Policy Unit on Financial Markets – the pair moved to California after the spectacular collapse of Beller’s hedge fund, Peloton Partners, in 2008.  In San Francisco they set up a new hedge fund, Branch Hill Capital, and ‘a new charter school organisation that will leverage technology in the classroom’.

      Even by the standards of the genre, Caliber Schools’ marketing material is pretty weird.  Five-year-olds at the Caliber Beta Academy will ‘take ownership of their learning journey’, which seems to mean that they will do an hour of writing every day (developing ‘fluency in grammar, syntax, prose, non-fiction and poetry’), take daily classes in computer coding and robotics, and undergo ‘mindfulness coaching’ as part of a ‘Positive Behaviour Intervention System’.  But the essential outlines of the model are clear: a lot of computer-based instruction (‘students practice on i-Ready and other online programs’), fewer qualified teachers (an end to ‘the traditional one-teacher-per-class model’), and more unqualified assistants (an ‘apprenticeship model’).  In the same year that they set up Caliber Schools, Beller and Moses founded Ed-Mentor LLC, a venture capital firm specialising in educational technology companies.

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Douglas Ray Hainline's picture
Sat, 25/06/2016 - 14:11

These ARK schools sound pretty good to me, assuming that they are getting good results. And although it's pretty clear that they would cost more, and thus require higher taxes, it would be value for money. Why not campaign to have this model extended to all schools?


Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 25/06/2016 - 16:40

Chasing high test results is not the only function of education.   High results in one ARK academy were down to substituting GCSEs with equivalent exams which were 'worth' two to four GCSEs.  When it was described as one of the most improved secondary schools in 2013, the 68% figure of pupils reaching the benchmark 5 GCSEs A*-C including Maths and English dropped to 32% when these equivalent exams were removed.   In 2014, 83% of Charter Academy Year 11s achieved the benchmark but Schools Week suggested this was because the academy had neglected other subjects - the 'average 8 grade' was actually C-.    

And while it's true that some high-profile ARK academies are outstanding, not all are.  ARK William Parker, for example, an ARK academy since 2013, was judged Requires Improvement in July 2015.  Monitoring in March 2016 found the academy was 'clearly improving but with much more still to sort out.'     ARK Helenswood, an ARK academy since 2013, was judged Requires Improvement in July 2015.  Monitoring in April 2016 found the academy was improving but '...this good news was only partial. Pupils deemed to be disadvantaged and entitled to the support of pupil premium funding did notably less well than their peers and all pupils nationally.'  


Douglas Ray Hainline's picture
Sun, 26/06/2016 - 08:33

Janet: Yes, I can believe that their results are not as good as they would like to say they are, across the board; and I absolutely agree that there is a lot wrong with GCSE's. But surely the right move would be to examine why the genuinely successful schools are that way, and then to extend their methods to other schools, while trying to get GCSEs modified.

Let me put it another way: if all of these schools are not doing any better than standard schools, and their claims arel just hype, then that needs to be said. But I got the impression from your article that some of them are doing pretty well for their children. If that's true, we ought to be finding out why, and demanding that their approach be taken up by all schools, or at least those schools which serve children in impoverished areas, where the children suffer a cultural deficit even before they get to school.

I've been trying to learn more about the Harlem Learning Zone in New York City, and if half of what is claimed about it is true, then there seems to be a lot to be learned from it. One obvious fact is that high quality education is not cheap. But if higher taxes are what's required to get a first class education system, then we shouldn't hesitate to demand them.


Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 26/06/2016 - 10:26

Teacher professionalism does not sit easily with cries to 'demand' a particular way of teaching to be adopted by all schools.   It is up to individual heads, governing bodies and teachers to decide what is best for their pupils.

You're right that a well-performing school system needs adequate funding but unfortunately that's not going to happen in England at least.  Most English schools are experiencing funding difficulties.   It's possible, of course, that some schools, like ARK, will attract funding from donors but a state school system should not have to rely on charitable donations.  Education is a public as well as a private good.  And philantrocapitalism, as this selective charitable donation by rich donors is called, is not altogether altruistic (see my comment beneath this Schools Week article).

It's true that some ARK academies are doing well, but so are many other schools which do not follow ARK's methods.  Across the board in 2015, 55% of pupils in ARK academies reached the benchmark 5 GCSEs including Maths and English.  This is against a national average of 53.8%.  ARK the best-performing academy chain for  value-added  but eight London boroughs had a higher value-added score than ARK academies in 2014.    It would be wrong to assume, therefore, that ARK's methods are superior and should be forced on other schools.   

Re the Harlem Children's Zone, Diane Ravitch, a US education expert and author, is an admirer of the Zone for its wrap-around care (not just education) but even she criticises its founder for not telling the truth, for 'sacking' underperforming classes and using the success of the Zone to lambast public schools. 


Douglas Ray Hainline's picture
Sun, 26/06/2016 - 10:54

I absolutely agree that everyone -- state schools and all the rest -- will try to manipulate statistics to put themselves in the best light. All we can do is to look closely at all the claims and debunk the ones which are false.

And I certainly agree that we can find some state schools that are doing well, along with the other kinds of schools. We need to find out why they're doing well, and make the rest adopt their methods.

But we do need national oversight of the educational process. I stopped believing in 'teacher professionalism' when I started reading school reports, and visiting my grandchildren's school, and noticed all the misspellings and grammatical errors on the part of their teachers. Perhaps 'semi-profession' would be more accurate. Everyone would like to be called a 'professional', including policemen and bankers. But whatever we call policemen, teachers, medical people, bankers -- there must be outside oversight, because no group can transcend its own material interests, which may not be entirely congruent with the interests of the rest of us.

I have a lot of admiration for Diane Ravitch, because she was not afraid to change her mind in the face of the evidence. My take-away from the Harlem Learning Zone is that high-quality education -- or rather, good education results -- are not the responsibility of the school alone but require adequate social provision, and that this is going to cost money, which means higher tax rates.

I agree that this sounds like a lost cause in the present political atmosphere, but things can change.


Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 26/06/2016 - 11:47

Spelling mistakes in reports are inexcusable but not sufficient basis to declare teacher professionalism is dead.  Other professionals, doctors, lawyers, make spelling errors on occasions.

Teachers need proper teacher education - they need to know a range of teaching methods in order to decide which are the best to fit their pupils.   Judging schools by results alone is unreliable - the OECD warned in 2011 there was too much emphasis on test results in England and this risked negative consequences - teaching to the test, 'gaming', focusing on a narrow range of subjects etc.  It would be dangerous, therefore, to 'make' other schools adopt methods which are used in schools where exam results are high.  That's not to say schools can't learn from each other - spreading best practice is highly desirable.   But not by force.  This opens the way for vested interests (eg publishers of education materials,  providers of training) to persuade ministers their way is best and all other schools should be forced to do this.  This is especially true when a school's high results are based on the practices which the OECD warned about or by manipulating the intake.

Things are unlikely to change.   And I say that with a heavy heart.  The endgame of the academies programme is for schools in England to be run for profit - Gove said before the 2010 election he would let groups like Serco run schools.  Schools are not just supposed to raise results but do so more cheaply.   You're right that education should be seen as part of a whole package, especially if it alleviates poverty.  But this Government's discourse has been that schools alone are responsible for social mobility .  That relieves the Government of its reponsibility to put in place policies that help raised children out of poverty.  


Douglas Ray Hainline's picture
Sun, 26/06/2016 - 12:25

It seems to me that education is not an area where 'the market' has much of a role to play.

I have never understood the reasoning behind competing examination boards, for example. Why isn't there just one exam board, run by the state? And why doesn't the state simply produce a set of high-quality textbooks and other supporting material, including videos and computer-aided programs, and make them available for free? The BBC goes part way towards doing this, but it's not really their role.

Speaking as someone who is not in either camp on this subject, it seems to me that it is critically important that the campaign for more state funding for schools not be, and not be seen as, simply more money for the status quo. The argument has to be, yes, we can do better than we're doing, and yes, it will cost money. However, I accept that at the moment, this is unlikely to be a popular combination of arguments.


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