Players in the market, part 2: Kunskapsskolan, the Learning Schools Trust, and 'personalised learning'
In the autumn of 1973, an article by Milton Friedman appeared in the New York Times. Entitled ‘Selling Schools like Groceries’, the piece was part of Friedman’s long campaign to revolutionise public education by means of a voucher system. The 52-year-old economist, about to come into his own as a guru of the New Right, outlined a future in which traditional public schools would be replaced by ‘highly capitalised chain schools’, run ‘like supermarkets’ by profit-making companies.
In the 1990s, as the market-driven reform of public education gathered pace in the USA, such companies did indeed begin to emerge. One was Edison Schools Inc., which now – as EdisonLearning – runs a number of English academies. Other US firms, like K12 Inc. and Mosaica, have also acquired chains of English state schools, as has the Dubai-based GEMS Education.
Of course, these firms are not yet able to profit directly from their English schools. And it has to be said that, back in the USA, for-profit companies have proved less effective operators of public schools than non-profit organisations like KIPP (the Knowledge is Power Program), which now has a chain of 200 charter schools across 20 states. Backed by philanthropic businessmen and financiers, non-profit entities like KIPP – or ARK Schools, its English twin – can explore ways of running schools on business lines, without pressure from investors looking for quick returns.
However, there is one for-profit company which has come close to realising Friedman’s vision of ‘selling schools like groceries’. This is Kunskapsskolan, described by its founder as ‘one of Sweden’s five largest school chain companies’. Kunskapsskolan’s attempt to break into the English schools market was not a success, as we will see. But the model developed by the company – highly cost-efficient, technology-driven, and skilfully marketed – is proving very influential, both in the USA and here.
The background: market experiments in the People’s Home
In 1991, Sweden’s Social Democratic Party lost power to a right-wing coalition led by the Moderate Party. The new government embarked on radical reform of state-funded education. Sweden became the first country since Chile under General Pinochet to try out Milton Friedman’s voucher plan – or a version of it – on a national scale. This involved significant decentralisation and deregulation of the schools system. As Anders Hultin, a young special adviser who played a key role in implementing the reforms, recalled in 2009: ‘our proposal was fairly simple: anyone could set up a school, and be paid the same per pupil as state institutions’.
The consequences were predictable: (1) the rapid commodification of public education, with the majority of the new ‘free schools’ being run by profit-making companies; (2) a sharp rise in the activity of private equity firms within this new sector, as the vultures fought over the public funds suddenly made available for private gain. Ibrahim Baylan, the Social Democrat schools minister between 2004 and 2006, told the Guardian in 2013: ‘Nobody could foresee that so many private equity companies would be in our school system as we have today’. He was commenting on the collapse of JB Education, which went bankrupt after its owner, a Danish private equity firm, walked away. More than 10,000 students were enrolled in the company’s schools.
Emilsson and company: PR, politics, and schools
Kunskapsskolan was founded in 1999 by Peje Emilsson, a ‘politician, entrepreneur and consultant in strategic communications’. Emilsson’s first enterprise, back in 1970, was a PR firm called Kreab, which later merged with a US company to become Kreab Gavin Anderson (‘a team of dedicated communications professionals’). In 1989, Emilsson started Demoskop, a marketing firm. The next step, following the shock therapy administered to Swedish society by the 1991-94 government, was a move into privatised public services: schools (Kunskapsskolan) and care homes (Silver Life, a ‘chain that provides security, service, and comfort’).
Peje Emilsson has excellent political connections. Carl Bildt, the leader of the 1991-94 administration, was on the board of the Magnora Group, the Emilsson family’s holding company. And a number of Bildt’s colleagues in the coalition government were involved in the creation of Kunskapsskolan. Anders Hultin, the main architect of the school reforms, was the company’s co-founder and first CEO (he went on to work for GEMS Education and Pearson, before becoming head of JB Education shortly before the company’s collapse). Per Unckel, minister of education in the 1991-94 government, sat on Kunskapsskolan’s board. Odd Eiken, another former schools minister, was until recently CEO of Kedtech, Kunskapsskolan’s subsidiary ‘for development of educational technology and services in emerging economies’. Like Emilsson, Eiken started out as a PR man.
Emilsson, Hultins and Eiken are ‘entrepreneurs’ who move easily between the worlds of politics, business and PR. They present themselves as faithful disciples of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman. Emilsson describes the marketisation and privatisation of Swedish schools as a ‘freedom explosion’. Running schools (or care homes) for profit is a blow against ‘a monolithic state system providing few choices’. For Odd Eiken, choice is the ‘market mechanism’ which will allow ‘the private capital market and private enterprise to contribute to […] educating the next generation’. Anders Hultin is another free market missionary. In 2009, he used an article in the Spectator to lecture Cameron’s Conservatives on the virtues of choice, competition and the profit motive:
There is indeed a schools revolution waiting to come to Britain, but one that can only reach its potential if the Conservatives realise that ‘profit’ is not a dirty word.
‘We do not mind being compared to McDonald’s’
In 2010, Peje Emilsson visited Washington D.C., where he gave a talk at the Cato Institute, a right-wing think tank. Here he explained the educational philosophy behind Kunskapsskolan: ‘those who believe that you cannot make education more efficient are just wrong […] anything the government does, you can of course get a better result at 20 per cent lower cost’. Controlling costs is the guiding principle of Kunskapsskolan’s business model. The basic features of the model are common to other for-profit education providers:
- consolidation of ‘back office’ functions (Emilsson: ‘one corporate back office which handles all support operations such as marketing, administration, financial and human resources’)
- an increased student-teacher ratio
- performance-related pay
- a proprietary curriculum, used by all schools in the chain, and licensed to other school operators
- a heavy reliance on information technology
Standardisation is key. As Per Ledin, who replaced Hultin as CEO in 2007, told the Economist: ‘If we’re religious about anything, it’s standardisation’. Odd Eiken, in a paper for the OECD, emphasises the point: ‘every step and element of learning is defined – from teachers’ roles to IT and architecture’. The aim is to create a low-cost, standardised, easily replicable service which can be sold in multiple markets. Rupert Murdoch – who at the time still had millions invested in his own education technology business – was impressed enough to travel to Sweden to see what he called the ‘IKEA schools’. Per Ledin was happy to go a step further: ‘We do not mind being compared to McDonald’s’.
Economies of scale
The architecture is important. Kunskapsskolan’s schools, whether in Sweden, England, or India, are built to a standard design. This design embodies a certain, rather Swedish, idea of modernity: large, open-plan spaces, a lot of glass and light, a certain functional bareness. As Odd Eiken puts it: ‘more like the site of a modern, creative knowledge industry […] than a traditional school’. The special design also involves significant economies. In traditional Swedish public schools, the average ratio of square meters to student is 12:1; in Kunskapsskolan’s schools, it is 7:1.
Rooms have to be used flexibly. Eiken again: ‘The laboratory also serves as a base group room, the cafeteria doubles up as a space suitable for collaboration or as a study area […] and all spaces in between rooms are learning spaces’. At Kunskapsskolan’s one US school, the Innovate Manhattan Charter School, there was no playground or gym (according to a schools review website, ‘students have physical education a few times a week in a room that doubles as a cafeteria’). Kunskapsskolan’s schools have limited facilities for practical subjects. When the first five schools opened in Sweden in 2000, the company also set up a craft centre, to be shared by all the schools on a rotating basis. Students board at the centre for two weeks at a time and do woodwork and art projects.
‘We don’t want teachers preparing lessons’: the KED Program
The most important feature of Kunskapsskolan’s model, however, is the use of information technology. The template for every school run by the company is the software known as the KED Program, ‘a complete tool box for coaching, web-based curriculum and learning material, manuals, design, performance management and administrative processes’. In other words, Kunskapsskolan uses IT to standardise most aspects of running a school – including the work of the teachers.
Students at Kunskapsskolan’s schools follow a totally standardised (and copyrighted) curriculum, accessed via the online Learning Portal™. Today, when mega-firms like Pearson and Google are busy developing online ‘learning management systems’, it is easy to overlook the fact that this small company from Sweden actually led the way. But Kunskapsskolan’s proprietary, web-based curriculum – which can be tweaked, obviously, to fit the requirements of national test regimes and accountability systems – is as innovative, in its way, as IKEA’s self-assembly furniture. And it has given rise to an educational model in which the position of the student is not unlike that of an IKEA customer, as we will see.
Teaching in all ‘KED schools’ must follow the script laid down by the Program. To quote Per Ledin again: ‘We tell our teachers it is more important to do things the same way than to do them well’. In fact, as Peje Emilsson told the Cato Institute, teachers are ‘not allowed’ to plan their own lessons. Ledin explains why:
We don’t want teachers preparing lessons during term-time. Instead we steal that preparation time, and use it so they can spend more time with students.
This is a very puzzling statement. Teaching is not a zero sum game, in which teachers can only carry out certain key responsibilities (supporting students) if they are relieved of others (planning and preparing lessons). Unless, of course, the aim is strict control of costs, especially wage costs. As Odd Eiken told the OECD in 2011: ‘By consolidating back office processes and liberat[ing] teachers’ time from some common administrative and preparatory tasks, we have been able to “finance” the system […] without having higher costs’.
Blended learning, or everything you ever wanted to know in 40 steps
Every student at a ‘KED school’ is given a logbook, and invited to set themselves targets (e.g. to get an A in English). These form the basis of the student’s personal learning plan. Students meet their targets mainly by logging into the Learning Portal™, and working through units of instruction known as ‘steps’. In Kunskapsskolan’s English schools, five subjects – English, maths, science, modern foreign languages and ICT – were each broken down into 40 steps. As Odd Eiken notes, a key principle of the Kunskapsskolan method, apart from standardisation, is to ‘set tasks and slice them into manageable and assessable chunks’ – which can then be delivered by computer.
Every week, students’ progress towards hitting their targets (i.e. the number of steps completed) is reviewed in a 15-minute one-to-one meeting with a teacher. This is why Kunskapsskolan describe their teachers as ‘personal coaches’ (according to a company website, the role of teachers in this system ‘transcends teaching’). Of course, there are other forms of contact with teachers too: lectures, workshops, and what Eiken calls ‘teacher-led communication sessions’. But much of the students’ time is spent in solitary work on laptops, in the open-plan ‘office landscape’ that is so central to the model.
This is one version of what has become known as blended learning: the combination of computer-based instruction with some ‘face to face’ or ‘in person’ teaching. The model is catching on rapidly with US charter school chains. Here in England, as well as being used in Kunskapsskolan’s English schools, it has been trialled by at least one other academy chain. It has a number of attractions for school leaders in search of ‘a more cost-efficient, effective school operation’ (Emilsson). It reduces the need for properly-trained, experienced teachers, and makes possible a much faster turnover of staff. More importantly, it allows student-teacher ratios to be drastically increased.
In the USA, for example, Rocketship Education, a Silicon Valley-based charter chain which has pioneered the use of computer-based instruction with kindergartners, was able to achieve a student-teacher ratio of 50:1 (see this report from 2014). Kunskapsskolan claim that their schools have a ratio of 20:1, but this is only part of the picture. According to Samuel Abrams’ recent book Education and the Commercial Mindset, while each teacher is responsible for reviewing the progress of 20 students in the weekly meetings, each subject teacher is responsible for around 60 students. Hence, presumably, the use of lectures, rather than more conventional lessons.
‘Personalised learning’ vs. the factory model
Kunskapsskolan have always described their approach as ‘personalised learning’. Emilsson and his colleagues seem to have been the first to come up with the line which is now repeated ad nauseam by the cheerleaders of blended learning: that public education as we know it is a ‘factory-style’, ‘one-size-fits-all’ system, which has remained virtually unchanged since the 19th century.
Here is a sample, from the Kunskapsskolan website:
The school as most of us know it, was an invention of the late 19th century. […] Mass education for mass manufacturing. Today's school should prepare for a different world.
Here is Odd Eiken:
All industrialised countries more or less run the factory model for schools. And we all share […] the problem of adapting a one-size-fits-all model to a society where demands and needs are more diversified
And here – to give just one example of the effectiveness of Kunskapsskolan’s messaging – is Rupert Murdoch again:
today's classroom looks almost exactly the same as it did in the Victorian age: a teacher standing in front of a roomful of kids with only a textbook, a blackboard, and a piece of chalk
If you can swallow this nonsense, then the rest of the sales pitch slips down quite easily. That a totally standardised curriculum, mainly delivered online, is the ‘modern alternative to the conventional “one-size-fits-all” factory school’ (Emilsson). That working through programmed units of instruction on a laptop – completing all 40 steps, with a test at the end of each one to assess ‘performance’ – frees students to work ‘at their own pace and at their own level’. That the logbook-and-targets system helps students to ‘own and drive their learning’. And so on…
The marketing of a school model whose main features are bare-bones facilities, a copyrighted curriculum, a lot of computer-based drill and practice, and a student-teacher ratio of 60:1, as ‘personalised’ or ‘student-centred’ is truly a triumph of strategic communications. It seems to have worked in Sweden. But when the model was exported to south-west London and Ipswich, things quickly fell apart.
‘If we spend a lot of money, we should have some return’: the Learning Schools Trust
Back in 2008, Michael Gove announced: ‘We need a Swedish education system’. In fact, the door had already been opened to the new Swedish edu-businesses. A year earlier, Kunskapsskolan executives had met Andrew Adonis, then a schools minister, with a view to breaking into the new market created by the city academies programme. As he recalls in his memoir Education, Education, Education, Adonis invited the company to ‘sponsor’ two academies in south-west London ‘on a not-for-profit basis’. Interviewed in 2009, Anders Hultin was clearly unhappy with the terms of the arrangement:
if we spend a lot of money and make a lot of investment we should have some return to at least cover our costs, but they got so nervous because they didn't want to see any transactions between the trust and the company in Sweden
Kunskapsskolan established the Learning Schools Trust in 2010. A UK branch of the parent company, Kunskapsskolan International, had already been set up in 2008. The purpose of the branch, according to documents filed at Companies House, was to provide services – ‘marketing, info, and consulting’ – to the English academies, and to ‘develop and license methods for conducting school business’.
The directors of Kunskapsskolan International were Peje Emilsson; his daughter Cecilia Carnefeldt, who had been Kunskapsskolan’s Director of Information; and Johan Rohss, a manager with Investor Growth Capital, an arm of Investor AB – another Swedish holding company which is a major backer of Kunskapsskolan. The only English member of the team was Steve Bolingbroke, who was recruited from a big IT firm, the RM Group.
Cecilia Carnefeldt and Steve Bolingbroke also sat on the Learning Schools Trust board. Nine trustees are listed in the minutes of the first board meeting. Five of them had a close connection with Kunskapsskolan: Carnefeldt, Bolingbroke, Lars Fredrik Lindgren (Executive V.P.), Birgitta Ericson (Director of Education), and Per Unckel. Another trustee, Patricia Hamzahee, worked for Kreab Gavin Anderson. Beatrice Engstrom-Bondy had been a partner at Kreab, and was a senior adviser at Investor AB.
Per Ledin joined the Learning Schools Trust board later in 2010. He stepped down as a trustee two years later, when Carnefeldt replaced him as CEO of the parent company. Ledin’s place on the LST board was taken by Emilsson’s son Calle.
Clearly, there could be no conflict of interest here.
Ofsted crashes the party
Two Learning School Trust academies opened in September 2010: Twickenham Academy (formerly the Whitton School) and Hampton Academy. The Ipswich Academy (formerly Holywells High School) opened in March 2011. In late 2012, the trust acquired another school, the Elizabeth Woodville School in Milton Keynes.
In the autumn of 2013, the Ipswich Academy moved into a new, £16 million building, which was officially opened by Michael Gove. But the school was already in trouble. Ofsted had visited in July, and graded it ‘Inadequate’. Teaching was ‘weak’. The students were ‘bored and restless’. According to the inspectors: ‘Although they are able to access the academy’s online learning portal at any time […] many do not take advantage of this facility’. A key recommendation was that teachers should have more scope to plan their lessons:
In the core of good lessons seen, teachers plan flexibly, allowing for independent work that challenges students of all abilities. Behaviour is good because students are interested.
The Ipswich Academy was still ‘Inadequate’ when Ofsted visited again early in 2015. And, once again, the inspectors recommended that teachers be allowed to ‘plan lessons effectively to meet the needs of different groups of students’. The school was soon in special measures.
The Twickenham and Hampton schools were also inspected in 2013. Both were graded ‘Requires Improvement’. The management at the Hampton Academy seem to have decided at an early stage to scrap the workshops, or ‘teacher-led communication sessions’, in favour of more conventional lessons. The inspectors approved:
The academy has made the right decision to have fewer workshops […] Students make good progress when workshops are carefully structured with resources ready, clarity about what is to be done, and the teacher knowing which students need help. They make very limited progress when these features are absent.
Two years later, Hampton Academy was still struggling. Twickenham Academy was visited again this April, and judged ‘Inadequate’. A key recommendation was that learning should be made ‘more purposeful, interesting, and enjoyable’. The Learning Schools Trust acknowledged that ‘it did not begin to develop a reliable understanding of the school until very recently’.
A survey of all six Ofsted reports reveals a clear pattern of comments, suggesting some of the limitations of ‘personalised learning’:
When lessons are dull, students are not involved in their learning. (Ipswich, July 2013)
Too many pupils find lessons uninteresting. (Twickenham, April 2016)
students […] are not confident at working by themselves (Twickenham, Nov 2013)
Students, both in the main academy and the sixth form, report that they would like more in-class support. (Hampton, June 2015)
There is not enough good teaching to address students’ needs (Hampton, July 2013)
Teachers do not have all the necessary skills or understanding to teach their subjects. (Ipswich, Jan 2015)
Teachers who are good practitioners have had little opportunity to help other teachers. (Twickenham, April 2016)
‘Kunskapsskolan is concentrating on other markets’: the end of the Learning Schools Trust
In March 2014, the Learning Schools Trust was barred from taking on new schools. The following year, the DfE removed Ipswich Academy from the trust's control. The school was handed over to the Paradigm Trust (whose board was, until recently, led by a senior manager with a private equity firm). The Twickenham and Hampton schools will join the Richmond West Schools Trust in September.
Steve Bolingbroke became CEO of the Learning Schools Trust in 2013. He seems to have known that the writing was on the wall for Kunskapsskolan’s English franchise, telling Education Investor: ‘Until such time as the maintained schools sector [in England] is more suitable for investment, Kunskapsskolan is concentrating on investing in other markets around the world’. The company is developing chains of fee-paying private schools in India and the Middle East. In June, Schools Week reported that Kunskapsskolan was finally exiting the English schools market.
From Stockholm to Silicon Valley … and Barnet
Although Kunskapsskolan’s Innovate Manhattan Charter School closed after only four years, their model – or versions of it – is now being adopted by leading charter school operators in the USA. Blended or ‘personalised’ learning is, in fact, emerging as the successor to the ‘no excuses’ model created by the KIPP chain, and widely imitated. As one enthusiast noted in 2013: ‘no-excuses charter networks across the United States are experimenting more and more with blended learning in various forms’. KIPP itself is currently ‘going blended’, with schools in Los Angeles, New Orleans and Chicago leading the way.
And Silicon Valley is very keen on personalised learning, which is turning charter schools into outlets and/or test-beds for the products of the education technology industry (proprietary software and curricula, 'learning management systems', 'management information systems', 'learning analytics', and so on). At the end of last year, Mark Zuckerberg launched the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative, a limited liability company which looks set to funnel millions of philanthropic dollars into education technology, and blended learning in particular. As Zuckerberg puts it:
Technology in personalised learning enables teachers and students to create personal learning plans, track progress and find materials to help them learn best. When technology is tailored to students’ needs, it frees up time for teachers to do what they do best – mentor students.
In 2014, Facebook assigned a team of engineers to help a California-based charter school chain, Summit Public Schools, develop an online 'learning management system', the Personalised Learning Platform. Summit Public Schools started out in 2003 with a version of KIPP’s ‘no excuses’ culture, but have since switched to a model that is very similar to Kunskapsskolan’s. Students use laptops to work through ‘Power Focus Areas’ in five subjects, with each unit followed by a test (usually multiple choice). Data from the tests is relayed to, and analysed by, the teachers' computers, allowing those in need of 'support' to be effectively targeted.
Sessions of computer-based instruction ('personalised learning time') are interspersed with ‘rich, project-based learning experiences’, in order to develop ‘higher order thinking skills’. It is hard to get a sense of what exactly this ‘project-based learning’ consists of, especially given the very limited facilities at Summit schools – but it seems to be mainly delivered by computer.
The flagship school is Summit Denali, opened in Sunnyvale, California, in 2013. At the heart of the school is ‘an open architecture learning space that accommodates all learning styles’, as the chain’s CEO, Dianne Tavenner, puts it. Photos show a rather bare, warehouse-like space, where dozens of students sit around working on laptops. Moveable shelving units are used to screen off parts of the space, so that smaller groups of students can have ‘Socratic seminars’. The school seems to have no science labs, no music or art rooms, no workshops, and no proper sports facilities. Students apparently go to nearby parks to exercise.
Another noteworthy feature of Summit’s operation is the ‘Blended Human Capital Model’, to use the words of an admiring report by the Dell Foundation. According to Tavenner, Summit is ‘redesigning teacher roles to move towards teams of educators, which can include teachers, learning coaches, intervention specialists and data analysts’. Here the chain is following the example of Rocketship Education, where staff are divided into ‘master teachers’ – typically 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 qualifications, who supervise online instruction. As John Danner, Rocketship’s co-founder, puts it: ‘You basically save 25% of your staffing costs’.
Who are the leaders of this educational revolution? Summit Public Schools’ board of directors includes two venture capitalists, two investment fund managers, the CEO of a healthcare company (‘Proteus Digital Health’), a real estate broker, and a former CEO of eBay. None have any background in education. Of the chain’s forty-strong management team, seventeen people are dedicated to ‘information’ or ‘communications’.
ARK Schools are an English academy chain with a similar board – of the nine trustees, six are hedge fund managers – and an equally impressive PR and marketing operation. And they are determined to succeed where Kunskapsskolan failed. Their Pioneer Academy – initially called the Blended Learning Academy – is currently being built on an old football ground in Barnet, and is scheduled to open next September. According to ARK, the use of blended learning is ‘an opportunity for revised teacher roles’, and will ‘improve cost efficiency through both staffing and school design efficiencies’.