Clegg claims he's stopped for-profit free schools. He hasn't.

Richard Hatcher's picture
Nick Clegg claims that he has thwarted plans by Michael Gove,to allow "free schools" to make a profit. This is not true. The front door might remain closed for the time being but the back door remains wide open for companies to run free schools for profit.

There are two ways to profit from running free schools. One is for a private company to set them up and own them. This is what Clegg claims he has prevented. But it is still perfectly legal for a governing body of a school – any school, not just free schools – to hire a company to run the school on a for-profit management contract. Turin Grove school in London did so in 2007 by hiring Edison Learning to run the school. But free schools open up new market opportunities for companies to set up and run branded chains of schools for profit on behalf of free school trustees. Gove is happy with this and nothing Clegg has said suggests that he isn’t either.

A case in point is Wey Education. Last year Zenna Atkins was Chair of Ofsted. This year she is the chief executive of Wey Education, which aims to run a for-profit chain of academies and free schools. The company has a school operating model which enables profit to be generated from its state funding:

"The Directors believe that the current teaching methods, allocation of resources, wastage and inefficiencies create the opportunity to provide the same standard of teaching and results at a lower cost per pupil. The Directors believe that alternative management operations could provide the same level of services for a lower cost and that alternative teaching methods could deliver better teaching results at a lower cost. […] The Group will seek to establish a new schools operation business which will play a major role as an outsource provider of management services to schools."
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Jenny Landreth's picture
Sun, 04/09/2011 - 13:03

If there's a more depressing sentence than 'alternative teaching methods could deliver better teaching results at a lower cost', I'd love to hear it. (I wouldn't.)

JimC's picture
Sun, 04/09/2011 - 13:21

If there a less inspiring personality than Zenna Atkins I'd love to meet them!

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 05/09/2011 - 13:50

Zenna Atkins is in favour of profit being made from the provision of education.

Chris Woodhead, once head of Ofsted, is also in favour of profit-making firms being allowed to run state schools. A younger Woodhead once said "The economic recession might explain the present hardening of attitudes, the backlash against anything savouring of a progressive ideology." Now it appears he's hoping to make a profit out of waving the lash.

Vintage Ted Wragg on Woodhead:

Woodhead and profit-making schools:

And the ex-Head of Partnerships for Schools has gone on to head "Cornerstone" which wants to develop surplus government buildings to make a return for investors before giving a bit of the profits to a charity.

Chris M's picture
Sun, 04/09/2011 - 22:20

Also, a non-profit organisation can set up a free school and buy services (consultancy etc) from a "for profit" related party.

Jake's picture
Mon, 05/09/2011 - 10:34

For the sake of balance here it should be re-confirmed as pointed out above that this 'back door' existed under Labour as at the Turin school in 2007. This should not become a party political point by anyone trying to spin this as unique to the Tory party or free school policy. Its probably more to so with 'unintended consequences' emananting from the last government.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 05/09/2011 - 13:29

You're right Jake - the academy programme under Labour encouraged profit-making companies to sponsor academies as well as academy chains. The former could be regarded as altruistic but could also give rise to accusations of influence on the curriculum especially as academies, and their predecessors, City Technology Colleges established under the last Conservative governments, do not have to follow the national curriculum (see rebuttal by Emmanuel College of claims that it was teaching creationism within science The latter are not accountable. Even an academy supporter such as John Burn OBE has warned against them saying academy chains are remote and siphon money away from schools. Burn was particularly critical of ULT, the largest sponsor of academies, which was banned by the last government for opening more academies after poor Ofsted reports. The ban has recently been lifted and Mr Gove regularly praises ULT as well as other academy chains.

The Academies programme was opposed by unions which would normally be thought to support Labour policies well before the Conservatives expanded the programme.

Jake's picture
Mon, 05/09/2011 - 13:43

There are some good edu chains and some bad ones. Just like there are some good LEAs and some bad ones. That doesnt mean they should all be tarred with the same brush of course. Like anything, one should seek to emulate the good models not the bad. Unions exist for no other reason than to protect their members.

This from the Observer yesterday: "What is clear is that in spite of a huge increase in education spending under Labour and the outstanding achievements of some comprehensives and teachers, we do not have an education system fit for the 21st century. While exam results continue to improve at the top end of the academic scale, almost a third of young people leave school with poor or no qualifications, many barely literate. Almost a million young people are not in employment, education or training. And, for too many pupils, failure is their permanent partner".

The likes of Mary Bousted and Christine Blower have both been in their union posts for some time now - they are as guilty as anyone of presiding over such pupil failure in recent years.

botzarelli's picture
Mon, 05/09/2011 - 14:00

Anything which allows a for-profit entity to provide services for any school involves allowing businesses to profit from state education. That goes equally for LEA schools and any services which they buy in. The whole BSF and PFI basis for funding investment in education over the past decade has involved allowing businesses to make profits from schools.

It is a strange criticism of Free Schools though, even if potentially appropriate for the use of private contractors in the LEA-sector. Free Schools have no point at all in being cut price institutions offering a similar or worse quality of education than that already available within the state system locally. Who would send their child to a Free School that was using "alternative" teaching methods that were less attuned to what they thought best and which achieved less good outcomes in the name of saving money?

Is the criticism of Free Schools based on a fear that they will be rubbish corner cutting education factories that would be terrible for parents and children to choose. Or is it that they will cream off the pupils from some of the most engaged parents and have more resources put into providing education (rather than going as shareholder profit) and so be unfair on the broader system?

If the former, then why not let them fail, let the parents make bad choices for their children and feel happy that your own children will have the benefit of the traditional state system? If the latter, then how is this consistent with depressing corner cutting? How can you have it both ways?

Jake's picture
Mon, 05/09/2011 - 14:11

I certainly agree on Zenna Atkins who of course once told the Sunday Times "every school should have a useless teacher". That aside, there is the usual ideological knee jerk here about 'for profits'. From a pragmatic position, if evidentially it can be proven that a 'for profit' school working in the state sector can offer the same standard of education (or better) than a 'not for profit' operator, then I dont see the problem here? Given the standard of transparency imposed on public companies through statutory accounting it is more obvious where they have to spend every penny than it is for say a 'non profit' who has no such fiduciary obligation in the public domain. So it is wrong to say all 'for profits' are evil, its a lot to do with checks and balances imposed on them (as with all schools) to ensure desired student outcomes are maintained every year.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 05/09/2011 - 16:27

Jake - Allan's post below mentions the disagreement between Woodhead's company, Cognita, and the parents at one of Cognita's schools where the company was accused of putting profit before education. The dispute is discussed in more depth here:

As far as Cornerstone is concerned, it's quite difficult to find information about it. It's not a limited company so it's not listed at Company House. It's not a charity, so it's not listed by the Charity Commission. It describes itself a social enterprise organisation which sounds philanthropic but actually exists to get a profit for its investors. Nothing wrong with that if it was a properly constituted company. But it isn't.

Typing "Cornerstone" into Google will result in a link to a charity in Scotland which provides care and support. I don't think that's the organisation associated with Tim Byles, the ex-head of PfI.

Googling "Cornerstone social enterprise" doesn't bring up information about Tim Byles's organisation, either. There cannot be checks and balances when information about an organisation is difficult to find.

Concerns about a company accused of putting profit before education, and similar concerns about an organisation which doesn't seem to be obviously in the public domain cannot be described as "the usual ideological knee jerk". These are serious qualms.

Ben Taylor's picture
Mon, 05/09/2011 - 14:13

You forget the ultimate accountability of parental choice. If parents don't like a free school run for profit they don't have to use it. And if these profit making schools are any good people should be able to copy their method of operation to another non-profit making variety, unless that is the profit making incentive is somehow essential, which raises other questions.

Allan Beavis's picture
Mon, 05/09/2011 - 14:31

Ben -

You speak as if parents are faced with an enviable choice of schools. They aren't and free schools certainly won't be increasing choice. Since choice is very limited, parents tend to get stuck with the school their children are in and the choice to change it is taken after much thought and upheaval. It's not like switching from one supermarket to another.

There are heaps of lawsuits lodged by states and invidual charter schools in the United States against the companies that own them. Complaints stem from poor exam results and provisions resulting from the negligence or cost cutting measures imposed by the companies. As the lawsuits rage and standards decline, parents have had to keep their children in the schools. Even here, parents who objected to the standards of the Cognita-run fee-paying Southbank International School considered legal means to wrets control away from Cognita before taking their children out.

If parents who have far greater choice by choosing to pay for their children's education are reluctant to switch schools, then how casual a decision is this for people who rely on state education?

Jake's picture
Mon, 05/09/2011 - 15:06

By increasing pupil numbers free schools will by definition improve 'choice' - its a supply side thing. There may be a debate around whether such schools help meet 'basic need' numbers or create surplus places but that is a related issue. As the revenue follows the pupil clearly there is not much room for huge surplus numbers but given that free schools will be on the margin of the 20,000+ existing state schools I am not sure that is ever going to be a significant problem.

It seems the basic logic of what you are saying is that "All state comprehensive schools = good. All other schools = bad". If that is the basis of your point then there is very little point continuing any debate.

Ben Taylor's picture
Mon, 05/09/2011 - 15:45

Free Schools are part of expanding choice: elsewhere on this site people have argued against opening free schools since they will take pupils away from existing schools. You can't have it both ways.

I am all for holding providers to account including litigation and powers to withdraw children for parents. The LSN could helpfully instruct parents in performing these actions agianst ALL types of schools including existing comprehensives. It is up to parents to choose if they use these powers and against who they wish.

Allan Beavis's picture
Mon, 05/09/2011 - 16:01

Ben -

Taking pupils away from existing schools is just one issue. A far more worrying one is the amount of cash taken away from existing schools towards providing capital funds for these handful of Free Schools - a figure around £124m I believe - thereby funding a risky educational experiment for the few at great financial and educational expense to the majority. Examples in Scandinavia and America have shown that these types of schools do not guarantee a level of success to justify their expense to the state nor have they shown that they outperform traditional schools to the extent that the government can justify such a radical and quickly implemented shift in schools policy.

It is odd that you would resort even to litigation to hold providers to account. Who wants the additional expense of litigation? Local Authorities, Ofsted and Adjudicators can perform the function of monitoring schools standards. Free Schools are accountable directly to an already stretched Secretary for Education, whose department has been notorious in its inefficiency in dealing with correspondence from both politicians and members of the public. How effective is this method of accountability going to be, especially when the current government will want to protect and prop up their make or break flagship policy?

Jake's picture
Mon, 05/09/2011 - 17:06

I would need to double check the figs but I believe the schools capex spend across the 5 year cycle is c£15 billion plus the extra £2 billion recently announced by Gove. In that context £124 million is on the margin. Further the average capital cost per pupil of a free school is less than that for a BSF project.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 05/09/2011 - 16:03

If a local authority is poor, then the electorate can vote it out. Academy chains can't. They are not accountable and there is no body who supervises their activities.

Jake - it would be helpful if you could provide a link to any quote that you use. As it is, the statement about illiteracy is inaccurate and I shall deal with it in a separate thread.

Jake's picture
Mon, 05/09/2011 - 16:15

I did reference the quote - from yesterdays Observer ( If the statement is inaccurate then take that up with John Mulholland. I am sure he will print a correction. Academy chains are accountable through their funding agreement with the Secretary of State - who in turn people can vote out the same way as they vote out a local authority. Your implication seems to be that its in the best interests of edu chains to antagonise parents? Its not as if they did so they would soon find these parents voting with their feet.

Jake's picture
Mon, 05/09/2011 - 18:16

And just to prove I am not biased towards a left wing media agenda, here is a quote from Sunday's Telegraph to balance things up (complete with link):

"Many on the Left abhor the notion that parents should be allowed to create the kind of schools they want for their children, rather than putting up with what the state sees fit to offer them. Their criticism has been rather undercut by the decision of Peter Hyman, Tony Blair’s former education adviser, to set up a free school next year in Newham, east London, with the simply stated aim of educating its pupils for the top universities and successful careers. It is salutary that he feels impelled to bypass the state system in order to do that."

But they would say that wouldnt they? Although as the piece says, it does rather undermine a lot of the opposition to free schools when someone like Peter Hyman comes out in favour. Hardly a hardcore SWP activist granted, but someone who knows education and has decided to put common sense ahead of ideological baggage.


Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 05/09/2011 - 16:34

You're correct - the country can vote out the government. But academy agreements tie up the academy for seven years and this will put academies under the control of a future Secretary of State of whatever political persuasion. Such concentrated central power is dangerous. Local government is the buffer between centralised control and local people. And parents with children in academies can't take an unresolved disagreement to a local councillor in the same way they can if the school is LA controlled - they have to take their dispute to the Secretary of State. As there seems to be no department in the DfE ready to deal with these disputes, and the DfE already does not reply to correspondence, I don't hold out much hope for any parents getting their complaint resolved.

Jake's picture
Mon, 05/09/2011 - 16:54

The Schools Adjudicator office exists to help in this area outside of the SoS in realtion to key areas of concerns such as admissions.

And depending on ones political persuasion it is arguable whether your local authority is a good or a bad buffer - if you're a Tory living in a Labour controlled borough its probable you would not agree with much of what they do. Politicians are politicians irrespective if whether they are local or central.

Jake's picture
Mon, 05/09/2011 - 16:40

Cornerstone has precisley zero to do with running or setting up of schools. Their business model relates to real estate, which is entirely to be expected given it has spun out of PFS. And I am sure there will from time to time be significant disagreement between operators, governors and heads, such as at Cognita. For different reasons the Vaughan is another recent example. But that doesn't mean such examples are the norm does it? My point is that they tend to be the exception. Its simply not in the long term interest of a school operator to alienate the parent body. Its self-defeating.

Allan Beavis's picture
Mon, 05/09/2011 - 20:55

It is unfortunate that big businesses will always put big profits at the expense of the customer, so school operators/owners in Charter Schools have indeed alienated their parent/governing bodies to such a degree that the latter have been forced to succumb to litigation in order to wrest control of their school back from the companies that ran their schools. Why did they give over control in the first place? Because groups of parents who mayh have the energy and will to set up a school lack the experience of actually running and maintaining it.

Ideally, school operators would not alienate governing/parent bodies but when the temptation to maximise profits and please shareholders has to take precendence over education standards, then children suffer and parents are left with the realization that they may have been take for a ride. For-proft making companies exist to ensure the bottom line is profit. Not education

Jake's picture
Tue, 06/09/2011 - 08:48

In reply to Allan's post below at 8.55pm (which does not have a 'reply' tag) it is worth pointing out that unless a commercial business is a monopoly or part of a cartel, it is simply not a long term viable strategy to supply a product or service that is consistently rubbish. Just ask Gerald Ratner. Equally, investors will not buy into such a company. It is counter-intuitive to suggest that a business can make 'big profits' by being crap at what they do.

In relation to litigation against charter schools - what % of charter schools are or have been the subject of legal action by parent/governing bodies in relation to the total number of charter schools? Only by answering that question based on some evidential proof can one form an opinion as to how widespread litigation actually is in the US.

Allan Beavis's picture
Tue, 06/09/2011 - 10:44

US Charter litigation has taken on many forms, but perhaps the most serious ones are the ones in which governance and states are suing companies for failing schools and refusing to account how they have spent the money. The issue isn't just about the numbers or percentages of companies being sued but about the lack of accountability enforceable by a body, such as our local authority, to ensure that publicly funded education provision is being properly used and to the benefit of the children under the company's care. There are many cases in America. If anyone is in pathological need of evidence that this is actually going on in America and not just a figment of my imagination, then they should look at the examples oh Ohio, Florida, New York and, I think, Georgia to find examples.

Having just returned from a trip to the States, where I had some opportunity to read material on, and discuss Charter Schools with many Americans, I can say with confidence that Charters have contributed huge problems into the education arena in the US, that their introduction has opened the gates for corruption, bribery and cheating, that they are largely unaccountable, that they are "big business" and that although many charters have satisfactory relationships with their schools, too many are counting the cost of Education Reform. We can but hope that, in mimicking the American model, our government won't also inherit or encourage the problems that have not been resolved over the 20 years that Charters have been in existence. Given that Gove is ideologically starstruck by Charters and the personalities that have advanced them in the US and that his own school reform agenda has been beset by problems, mistakes and a lack of foresight, there is no assurance that he has taken steps to avoid the mistakes of the Americans.

Jake's picture
Tue, 06/09/2011 - 11:23

I do not think a newspaper report that mentions 3 'for profit' operators is reasonable evidence of a widespread problem. Clearly White Hat, Leona and NHA have had problems but the same report you link to also says that charter schools and public schools both have similar student outcomes in meeting the AYP benchmark - there is a 4% difference. Hence my original question which you have not answered relating to the overall extent of the problem. Equally your personal feedback following a visit to the US is no more objective than my saying having watched 'Waiting for Superman' that charters are really great. Both you and Davis Guggenheim are guilty of polemic by failing to add any objective balance to your viewpoint - all of which is fine if your goal is to campaign rather than educate.

Allan Beavis's picture
Tue, 06/09/2011 - 17:05

Forthe record - for anyone still remotely interested and following this thread, as I said above, these are examples of litigation. There are many more accessible through the public domain and they take many forms. Anyone interested and up to date with the Charter School debate will be aware of them.

Trip to US not personal feedback. I undertook research and spoke to many people for and against charters

Jake's picture
Tue, 06/09/2011 - 17:48

Ducking a diificult question again this time by feigning ennui? This reminds me very much of an earlier exchange where you made all sorts of grand statements about Gove throwing money at a 'pet academy' project in the north east. When pushed and you eventually grudgingly put up the source link to your story, the truth was nothing like you had asserted - link here to that exchange:

Research is only as valuable as the people paying for it, which in your case I can't imagine has anything to do with a balanced or neutral starting point.

Allan Beavis's picture
Tue, 06/09/2011 - 17:55

Well I wasn't engaging with you there Jake, but I am glad you chose to draw attention to post. It really encapsulates your [deleted] character. Your own words and demeanour condemn you.

Jake's picture
Tue, 06/09/2011 - 18:15

Brilliant - thats put me in my place. Although some might call your reply a logical fallacy or even 'argumentum ad hominem' as I'm sure Toby Young might say.

Josh's picture
Tue, 06/09/2011 - 18:19

Ha! Who gives a flying f*** what either of you two blockheads think or say? Looking through this site, it is the pro state school liberals who argue the case coherently and intelligently. Keep up the good work LSN and keep spreading the word.

Jake's picture
Tue, 06/09/2011 - 18:41

"Ha!"? Who are you, Lord Flashheart? Free schools and academies are state schools but your post has the tone of a small teenage child high on sugar so perhaps that fact may have passed you buy.

Josh's picture
Tue, 06/09/2011 - 19:14

It's 'by', but the way, not 'buy'. Just read the post you stuck up - you really go for Saskia don't you? Who are you? Son of Fred West or Jon de Maria, whatever nonentity he is? You really are one repulsive psycho.

Enough about him.

Apart from the great comments here, can anyone recommend books on the history of charter schools or literature on Free Schools? Thank you.

Allan Beavis's picture
Tue, 06/09/2011 - 19:34


This is a seminal, great book by DIANE RAVITCH

“The Death and Life of the Great American School System”

Also –

“The Six Predictable Failures of Free Schools and how to Avoid Them” By LAURA McINERNEY

And the brand new book from MELISSA BENN –

“School Wars – The Battle for Britain’s education”

Jake's picture
Tue, 06/09/2011 - 19:35

The more I am personally criticised on this site the more I enjoy it because it means you are losing the argument - ad hominem. Corrections of minor typos or misspellings being a classic example. So keep the 'insults' coming. They cheer me up no end.

Josh's picture
Tue, 06/09/2011 - 19:43

In your dreams * delusional *

Jake's picture
Tue, 06/09/2011 - 20:07

Seriously, how old are you? Based on your initial post, if you think that people who support free schools and/or academies are by your implication anti-state school education, then you have a fundamental misunderstanding of the issues being discussed on this site.

josh's picture
Thu, 08/09/2011 - 09:18

Thanks. I have the Diane Ravitch book. Essential reading. I wasn't concentrating when I wrote "charter" - i meant to write history of the English state schools.

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