A reply to James Croft, author of “Profit-Making Free Schools”, a report by the Adam Smith Institute

Allan Beavis's picture
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.
Share on Twitter Share on Facebook

Be notified by email of each new post.


Francis Gilbert's picture
Sun, 24/04/2011 - 09:19

I agree with most of what you say here Allan. The big question at the moment is, IF you are going for a free school system, it may be that it's fairer to have "for profit" schools. At the moment, we've got a complete "dog's breakfast" with the taxpayer forking up for all the capital costs and taking all of the liability if the schools fail: it's expensive, overly bureaucratic and not working clearly. In Sweden and the US, at "charter" and "free" schools have to raise their own capital costs and only get the money per pupil, so they are not "draining" the state system of huge resources.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 24/04/2011 - 09:20

This my reply to James Croft, published on the Spectator site: Mr Croft - I admire your persistence in ploughing through all those OFSTED reports and other data to reach your conclusions re allowing for-profit schools to open as free schools. The difficulty with reports from think-tanks, however extensively researched, is that they are influenced by the underlying philosophy.

You dismiss Mr Beavis's remarks in your blog yet have not fully considered worrying evidence of court cases in the USA re charter chains and concerns by US Congress into the working of tertiary for-profit educational chains (profit before education).

In your blog you also mention reports done by Policy Exchange including one partially sponsored by the New Schools Network (hardly an objective source). It would be highly unlikely if the New Schools Network were to come out against free schools.

You also mention that the Local Schools Network have not picked up the gauntlet to produce statisical evidence to refute the Swedish data you cited. As you know, this would be difficult for anyone who is not a statistician and who does not have a time and resources to do. The challenge, therefore, was one that would be unlikely to have been taken up.

Instead of relying on reports from think thanks (of whatever political persuasion) I prefer to rely on research done by non-partisan organisations such as the OECD. I thoroughly recommend Chapter 3, Reforming Education in England, in the OECD Economic Surveys: United Kingdom 2011 which I have cited above, and has interesting things to say including concerns about GCSE grades, league tables, diverting resources and the possible detrimental affect of free schools/academies unless the policy is closely monitored. At least I know that it is not partisan.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 24/04/2011 - 09:23

Frances - I'm not comfortable with the idea of "for-profit" schools. There is always a danger that profit will be placed before education as I have described in my reply to James Croft (posted above). We are already seeing this here with accusations against Cognita by from parents in Southbank International School.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Sun, 24/04/2011 - 18:50

Janet, I address your points in my next post. Thanks for them I think we are raising an important debate here...

Allan Beavis's picture
Sun, 24/04/2011 - 20:49

James Croft has commented once more on the Spectator http://www.spectator.co.uk/coffeehouse/6885768/the-profit-motive-would-b... blog that "If profit-making companies had been allowed to participate from the off, the result would have been a higher proportion of high quality applications that would have cost less to process."

I think had his report looked more closely at even just some of the high profile litigation cases in Charter Schools in America and reflected the level of criticism of these schools with respect to the way data has been distorted in the public relations campaign to promote them as the saviour of America's education woes, then it could have been taken more readily as an independent and non-partisan piece of work.

The tax payer is becoming more aware that there is criticism of free schools and that they are draining educational resources away from LA maintained schools. His report seems to have appeared to coincide with the government having to confess that the budget for the ambitious scale of free schools and academies is untenable, so how timely that he recommends for-profit expansion into state schools. Timely too that Chris Woodhead and Cognita etc. get the greenlight just when they most need it, despite the scandal at Southbank International School.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Sun, 24/04/2011 - 21:03

I think that a situation where LA provision was competing against genuinely "private" provision (ie a private company that had raised its own funds) would be preferrable to the current situation where LA schools are competing against state-funded private companies, which is basically an extremely costly idiocy.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 26/04/2011 - 12:15

Mr Croft’s report finds evidence that proprietorial schools outperformed other independent schools. However, he didn’t compare these schools with maintained ones. The report looked in particular at for-profit schools at the inexpensive end of the fees spectrum. Reports for the 134 schools inspected by OFSTED found that 9.35% were outstanding, 65% good, 24.46% satisfactory and 0.75% unsatisfactory.

How does this compare with OFSTED for maintained schools? In 2009/10, 56% of inspected maintained schools were good or outstanding and 8% were inadequate. This suggests that the for-profit schools at the lower end of the fees spectrum outperformed maintained schools. However, OFSTED stress that in 2009/10 it was taking a more “risk-based approach” to inspection of maintained schools concentrating more on schools which had previously been judged satisfactory or inadequate. Mr Croft’s research does not make it clear whether the inspection of the proprietorial schools was similarly “risk-based”. If it were not, then the inspection of the proprietorial schools would have contained schools which had previously been judged good or outstanding.

OFSTED found that for maintained schools a “strong relationship remains between deprivation and poorer provision: 71% of schools serving the least deprived pupils were good or outstanding.” Mr Croft’s report doesn’t make it clear but I would assume that pupils attending proprietorial schools at the inexpensive end contain “the least deprived pupils”. The number of these schools achieving good or outstanding (74.35%) is only 3.5% higher than the number of maintained schools serving the least deprived pupils.

The gap between all independent proprietorial school and maintained schools is wider with 83.50% of the former judged good or outstanding. However, the former will include selective as well as non-selective schools and the inspection of these would not have been “risk-based” as in the case of many of the maintained schools.

Much was made of the figure of 83%of the whole proprietorial sector being non-selective. The report excluded from this definition any schools thought to have a soft-selection policy, while those judged to be genuinely assessing for pupil profiling or diagnostic purposes were included. However, we do not know how far, if at all, this pupil profiling assessed academic ability. Neither is it clear how far self-selection played a part in skewing the intake towards more able pupils.

The report said 80% of proprietorial schools are “situated in urban or sub-urban contexts. This is to be expected because these areas are where the customer base resides. And we don’t know whether these contexts are affluent or disadvantaged areas. According to the report the schools have “correspondingly socially and ethnically diverse pupil intakes.” The schools may well reflect the social and ethnic make-up of their immediate area but if this area is more affluent and contains a high proportion of professional parents then the social and ethnic mix will not be the same as that in a disadvantaged inner-city area.

The statistics for the proprietorial schools are presented in such as way as to make them sound as if they are well-suited to entering the maintained sector as free schools. However, there is no guarantee that these schools would take a full range of pupils, including disadvantaged pupils and those on free schools meals. In any case 72% of the proprietorial sector only educates pupils up to age 13. It is unclear how their entry into the maintained sector would increase provision at secondary level.

Tokyo Nambu's picture
Wed, 27/04/2011 - 07:40

" In 2009/10, 56% of inspected maintained schools were good or outstanding "

"However, there is no guarantee that these schools would take a full range of pupils, including disadvantaged pupils and those on free schools meals."

I don't like to introduce a note of the real world into this high-minded discussion, but have you spent much time with parents doing secondary schools admissions lately?

Firstly, Ofsted has limited credibility: schools are tagged "good" (and, indeed, "inadequate") for reasons almost entirely unrelated to "would you send your child there?", and the only people who seriously believe more than half the schools in the country are "good" are Ofsted themselves. One of our local schools is "Outstanding"; I've never met anyone who would seriously consider it as somewhere to send their children to, because it is apparently gaming its results by focussing on soft exams: "Results in the Business and Technology Education Council ICT and health and social care examinations have been particularly impressive...the proportion of students gaining five or more GCSE A* to C grades that include both English and mathematics has been variable over the last three years and does not show the same level of improvement." A quick look at the results shows 53% 5-including-M+E, while adjacent schools of similar size, intake and Ofsted rating get 70% and 75%. Parental debate, which doesn't appear in the Ofsted or the league tables, says that children with a secure C or above or E or below are ignored, with all the effort expended on those who can be hauled over the D/C boundary. So parents who have the option go to one of the two adjacent schools whose results don't appear to show this sort of gaming: all are Outstanding, though, so the less well informed are liable to make the wrong choice.

Secondly, for most people who are not political die-hards, "full range of pupils, including disadvantaged pupils and those on free schools meals" means "don't send your children here", and I would be astounded if there were many people whose first through fifth school choices were not in order of ascending FSM and EAL. That may be wrong of them, but oversubscribed schools tend to be leafier and more culturally homogenous than undersubscribed ones.

Andy Burnham made an excellent point in his speech that may have passed the London-based writers by: Labour's policy was based on London concerns, and the London educational map looks very different to elsewhere. London has more diversity, in that areas are more integrated rather than being towns divided along ethnic lines, and many more people are in the private/state dilemma than elsewhere because there is more money. Let's take another local school and see why high FSM and EAL might not attract parents: it's in special measures because "overall teaching is not strongs enough to promote consistently good progress" and it"does not support students' learning needs well enough". "For example, inspectors observed a student who was predicted a higher grade doing the same work as another student with weak skills in English and was clearly struggling". "Some students'[sic] do achieve well and in 2010 over 20 students gained places in higher education, but too many missed their targets, were unclassified in examinations, or repeated the same courses and modules. A few courses enable students to achieve well, but this is in stark contrast to others. Some weak teaching and a mismatch between course demands and students' skills and abilities result in outcomes that overall are inadequate". Now, you can sing kum-bah-yah about its inclusivity, but would you send your child there? Really?

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 27/04/2011 - 17:43

Tokyo: we were discussing the Adam Smith Institute report. The author thought that the OFSTED reports for the proprietorial schools were accurate enough to be praised, therefore in this context it was acceptable to compare OFSTED judgements of proprietorial and maintained schools. It doesn't really matter whether you, or anyone else, thinks OFSTED is inaccurate. The point is that the author of the report did.

I'm afraid I didn't read the rest of your lengthy post since this is a thread about the Adam Smith Institutde report and not a harangue against OFSTED.

Andy Smithers's picture
Wed, 27/04/2011 - 21:29


No one reads all of your numerous, must try and get the last word in, off topic, posts.
Tokyo was making a true point about where real parents want to send their children.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 28/04/2011 - 09:31

I discussed at length above the comparison between OFSTED judgements of for-profit schools at the lower end of the fees spectrum and those of maintained schools. What I did not do, and neither did the author of the Adam Smith report, was to look at OECD data comparing privately managed schools with state schools (OECD calls these public schools). Here is the OECD conclusion:
“On average across OECD countries, privately managed schools display a performance advantage of 30 score points on the PISA reading scale (in the UK even of 62 score points). However, once the socio-economic background of students and schools is accounted for… in the United Kingdom public schools outscore privately managed schools by 20 score points once the socio-economic background is accounted for.”

http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/33/8/46624007.pdf (page 13)

This would suggest that the apparent success of independent schools is more reliant on the socio-economic background of pupils than on the education offered.

And what does OFSTED have to say about the independent schools that it inspects. OFSTED made only two short comments – one related to the quality of education as discussed in the above post, and this:

“Most of the non-association independent schools emphasise the acquisition of basic skills well and provide an orderly and purposeful environment.”

Not much different to state schools then.


Add new comment

Already a member? Click here to log in before you comment. Or register with us.