The current set up for Free Schools is a complete disaster - even an openly "for profit" system would be fairer

Francis Gilbert's picture
Allan Beavis's last excellent post raised this issue. Janet Downs, a brilliant LSN blogger, said that she was deeply uncomfortable on the "for profit" idea for schools. I agree, I'm against it on "principle": the moment you start making a profit out of children's education, the pupils become secondary, and cost-cutting, erosion of genuine standards, "commodification" of children's lives and, ultimately, corruption ensue -- as Allan eloquently points out in his last post.

But let's look at the current situation. My concern is that the current free school system is actually "for profit" without saying it on the tin: the "charities"/organisations running academies/free schools are paying their top people huge salaries at great expense to the taxpayer, but as private companies they are not taking the "risk" that private enterprises take on, because they're being funded entirely by the taxpayer -- who will pick up the tab if they fail. It's win-win for companies like E-Act, Cognita, Ark etc at the moment (virtually a cartel) but actually a genuine "for profit" system would be fairer for the taxpayer than the current system. In a genuine "for profit" system, these companies would have to a) raise their own capital funds b) deal with the consequences if they make a loss. What we have at the moment is a deeply unfair set-up which benefits a privileged few private companies who are friendly with the powers-that-be (who take NO risks).

I realise what I am saying is a scary thought, but the deeply disingenuous programme we have in place at the moment satisfies NO ONE: it's massively expensive, very bureaucratic and the taxpayer is shouldering ALL the risk.

I think this issue is one we have to address because the reality is that the free school system is here for the time being. Or is this argument a completely bogus one? I am happy to be corrected!
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Bob Harrison's picture
Sun, 24/04/2011 - 19:26

The supply side schools reform programme is predicated on the disputed research of Caroline Hoxby,

Even Sam Freedman acknowledges this research is disputed but is prepared to let this reckless experiment proceed.

There is an ideological filter applied to all evidence which does not support the views of the Conservative ministers.

Andrew Nadin's picture
Sun, 24/04/2011 - 19:31

Your point is valid. At the moment the FS system falls between two stools - neither 'competitive' enough to weed out the bad operators, nor inclusive enough to be worthwhile or vfm. It's a sort of hybrid self-selecting system funded by the tax payer....the only people that win are the 'I'm alright Jack' middle class brigade who manage to 'avoid' the horror of a state school they're believe isn't good enough for their little Johnny (biggest/best e.g. being our friend, Mr Young).
Personally, I have no problem with 'for profit' in the sense that it already exists, i.e. private school. They operate in an environment much closer perfect competition than even 'for profit' free schools would - because parents (customers?!) choose the service & pay directly, funding is not via the government. As I've said for a while, free school proposers should either go private (if they think the state system is so crap), or go and help a failing state school and make it better (if they're so bloody good, the school will excel).
Imagine how brilliant Toby Young's local school would be if he gave it the >60hrs a week he claims to spend on the WLFS?

Fiona Millar's picture
Sun, 24/04/2011 - 19:59

Most private schools don't operate in a system of perfect competition - there was the recent price/fee fixing row and most are subsidised by the tax -payer via their charitable status ( so can't strictly make a profit although they can accumulate reserves). The type of schools to which James Croft refers are genuinely profit making ( Woodhead for example is adamant that his schools would never claim charitable status) and in one sense that is a more honest position, than the rest of the private sector or the new free schools both of which rely on the state to a greater or lesser degree.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Sun, 24/04/2011 - 20:05

Thanks for these comments. It's clear that the taxpayer, with both the private sector and free schools, is currently funding deeply "uncompetitive" system which favours those in favour with the government, but simply does not offer a "level playing field".

Francis Gilbert's picture
Sun, 24/04/2011 - 21:06

You're right Fiona. It's well-known that private schools are a covertly state-funded cartel which secretly agree to a similar fee structure and holidays etc. It's not about how good you are as a school, but who you know...A lot of them are pretty poor schools who survive by their extremely selective entry requirements.

Georgina Emmanuel's picture
Mon, 25/04/2011 - 18:04

Francis, I'm not sure that I would agree with you that a lot of private schools are pretty poor and survive by their extremely selective entry requirements. I think a positive aspect of private school education is that, as the parents are the customers paying the fees, the schools have to give value for money or else they don't survive. Thus, parents make their selection, their child passes the common entrance exam and he/she enters the school; but if the school does not deliver, then the child is sent to another school.

The advantage of such schools is that, as they have charitable status, the good ones are very wealthy indeed. They can provide small classes, pay their teachers as much as it takes to hire the best, offer whatever subjects they want and also a wide selection of extra curricular activities. Best of all, a private school education is really the equivalent of paying for a child to have a future. As one student once said: We would have to be pretty stupid NOT to get into university when the education on offer is so good."

In an ideal world, all children would have the opportunities such a system provides but, the bottom line is that as we all know, it is very very expensive.

I guess this is why I take issue with the free schools. I think it is great that such schools are going to try and emulate some of the best features of private schools but, if no fees are going to be paid, such schools cannot "morally" set themselves up as being able to cherry pick the kinds of students whom the parents would be happy for their children to go to school with.

I have tried to ask on this website, as have many others, just how admissions to free schools are going to work. I have also asked for some details about the kind of specialised language development training, for example, that will be provided for EAL students. As I have read nothing specific, I remain very sceptical about just how the admissions system is really going to operate.

As you yourself have said many times, and I agree, the best place to put all of this money, extra resources, improved curricula, energy and time is into the local schools and their communities.

Having said this, I have a lot of sympathy with parents whose local school is a failing school and I believe that London has perhaps more than its fair share of these? Such schools do need to be built up or closed down.

Fiona Millar's picture
Tue, 26/04/2011 - 09:58

I think the London Challenge has proved what can be done to improve inner city state schools and narrow attainment gaps as this recent Ofsted report shows. I believe there are proportionately fewer failing schools in London than there were before this work started ( and it relied heavily on collaboration rather than autonomy for schools) .
There is quite a lot of quite mediocre private education that is carried along in the wake of the big and very successful independent schools. The trouble is the best of the independent schools are used to typify the whole sector and the worst state schools are generally used to typify the entire state sector.
In 2003 I made a film for Channel Four about school choice and interviewed Mike Tomlinson, who had just stood down as HM Chief Inspector at Ofsted. He told me the worst of the private sector ( usually small relatively invisible prep schools) was worse than anything he had ever seen in the state sector. Of course they aren't named and shamed in quite the same way as state schools and their results don't appear in primary league tables so parents don't always have the same tools of the market with which to judge them. When the head teacher of my own children's ( then failing) primary school resigned in 1994 - his next career move was to buy a private school.

Nigel Ford's picture
Tue, 26/04/2011 - 08:23

I'm not sure that the market for private schools is quite as fluid as Georgina makes out if they are underperforming and failing to deliver.

In many areas of the country there may only be one or two private schools in the catchment area and if your child is a day pupil you are not spoilt for choice if you want to transfer.

Also many public schools enjoy a built in "customer base" in that they benefit from a strange tradition where a father will send his children to the same school that he attended whatever the merits/weaknesses of the school. If you look at many of these established public schools with a strong boarding element there is a high ratio of pupils with an ancestral link to the school.

People will have their own subjective views about the overall quality of education within the private sector and I myself wouldn't formulate an argument against them based on inferior qualites although some offer better value than others.

What I would say is that by going to a truly comprehesive school a child is getting a far better social development by mixing with a wider spectrum of people than he/she would by attending an independent school.

Georgina Emmanuel's picture
Tue, 26/04/2011 - 11:05

Nigel and Fiona,

I accept what you are saying but I still think that private schools have to make a huge effort to produce the results parents feel they are paying for if they want to survive. Nigel, I agree that there are lots of children who go to their parents' old school, but again, I don't think they will stay there if the school's standards have declined. I may be wrong.

In terms of state schooling, although there has been improvement, I still think there are vast differences in standards across the UK for all sorts of socio-economic reasons; and this, as I see it, is the problem with UK education.

In Bucks, only around 12% of the children living in the catchment area for the local grammar schools, get a place. This is because they are competing with the whole of Buckinghamshire and beyond, not because they are not bright. Then there are two excellent comprehensives, one of which is C of E, and these serve very middle class catchment areas. And then there are the three secondary moderns. These three schools have struggled hugely over the years to attract a balanced mix of students and parents and also to keep their good/outstanding teachers. Standards are going up but it always feels like a big struggle and it shouldn't be.

When the educational results are published for Bucks, the LA rejoices in the high standards overall - some of the highest in the country because of the grammar schools, but keeps very quiet about the three secondary moderns. We endure negative publicity from time to time which usually focuses on GCSE results. Even if we try to suggest to parents that our results reflect our very wide intake, they understandably worry that their own children are not going to do as well in the secondary modern schools as they would do in either of the comprehensives in good catchment areas or, of course, in the grammar schools.

This inequity in the UK school system has always been the key issue for me; and the cause is not rooted primarily in poor leadership,poor teaching or poor discipline. This 'diagnosis' is far too simplistic.

Fiona Millar's picture
Tue, 26/04/2011 - 11:24

I think it goes without saying that our school system would be fairer if we could get rid of academic selection. Parents and pupils in selective areas are faced with an impossible choice. Most parents want to be able to send their children to schools with balanced intakes; if some schools cream off the top 20-30% clearly the remaining schools in that area ( and beyond) will struggle to provide the sort of education many parents want, and to which all children should be entitled. However I think it is wrong to suggest that poor leadership and teaching don't matter. Good comprehensive schools need balanced intakes, good teaching and strong leadership as well as a balanced curriculum offering a range of choices.
The fact that there is a queue of private schools waiting to be bailed out by the state also suggests that quite a few aren't doing that well at the moment. The recession has forced some parents to look again at their local state schools and, judging by the pressure on places in many areas, are not disappointed by what they have found there.

Davis Lewis's picture
Tue, 13/09/2011 - 14:57

Wherever you find grammar schools you will also find some the poorest performing schools in the locality. Buckinghamshire, Slough and Kent come to mind. What this shows is that selective education does not benefit everyone. You are right about Buckinghamshire being quiet about its less succesful schools, they have had at least three school performing below the 30% benchmark, Luton an often castigated authority has no schools in the 'national challenge' category.
I think we could start with the teachers and particularly the headteachers rediscovering their professional and moral integrity and then reclaiming the profession from the politicians who have been playing with the futures of our children. There isn't another areain our lives that has been so poisoned by the dogma and corruptive motives of our politicians. I just hope that our teachers will rise up and tell the politicians where to get off and let the professionals run the profession. Do you really think we can trust our children's futures with our politicians?

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 26/04/2011 - 12:19

The Adam Smith report says “There are 58,343 unfilled places in mainstream independent schools in England – the majority of these are in good schools, whose pupils achieve at higher levels than the national average.” This is unsurprising since mainstream independent schools serve pupils from a high socio-economic background who “tend to be taught in smaller classes and have access to better quality teaching resources” (page 102 OECD Economic Surveys: United Kingdom 2011) as well as benefiting “from a more intellectually stimulating home environment and high-quality extracurricular activities (page 104 op cit).

The report suggests that these places could be filled if the government funded bursaries for children in care or those attracting the pupil premium. Since there is no educational advantage (as judged by the quality of university degrees ) in being privately educated, it could be argued that a possible reason for paying independent school fees is for parents to keep their children separate from disadvantaged ones. Proprietors of such schools may wish to discourage such pupils if they don’t want to deter fee-paying parents.

The report estimates that 350,000 extra places will be needed, mostly at primary level. The demand for these extra places will eventually move into secondary level, so it is unclear how the 72% of independent proprietorial schools who only educate up to age 13 will have any impact on the number of extra places needed when the large cohort moves into the secondary stage.

Why, then, does this report recommend the for-profit schools be allowed? It is to push open the door to allow the private sector to move into the education market – firms such as Edgefield Capital who says the education market “has huge potential” for making money.

As Adam Smith might have said, “It is not from the benevolence of the private equity firm, the strategic investor, or the for-profit education industry that we expect our children to be schooled, but from their regard to their own interest.”

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 26/04/2011 - 12:32

The penultimate paragraph of my last post should have read, "Why, then, does this report recommend that for-profit schools be allowed in the state sector?" I then answer the question by suggesting what Adam Smith might have said in the circumstances.

I said above that I was deeply suspicious of for-profit schools. However, Mr Croft's report shows that the tiny for-profit sector in the UK is doing a good job. I think, therefore, these schools should be left alone to continue doing this outside the state sector and not be used as foot soldiers in the battle to allow the heavier guns of private equity firms and the like to profit from the provision of a state-run service.

Georgina Emmanuel's picture
Wed, 27/04/2011 - 10:52

Fiona, I must have expressed myself rather poorly. I did not mean that poor teaching and poor leadership don't matter. What I was trying to suggest was that it is far too simplistic to single out just these reasons for schools failing.

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