“They create a prison and call it freedom.” Schools, education providers and autonomy

Janet Downs's picture

“They create a desert and call it peace,” said Calgacus, leader of the Britons, in the first century AD. He wasn’t just denouncing the Romans as enemies in wartime. He was also condemning the distortion of language. The Romans came as conquerors but called their occupation peace.

What has this to do with English schools today? The answer is: freedom. Mr Gove sells the academy conversion programme and the free schools policy with the promise of freedom. Schools who convert will be free from local authority (LA) bureaucracy. Free schools will give groups the freedom to run a school in the way they want.

But were English schools crushed by LA control in the first place? The evidence suggests not. Local Management of Schools allowed each state school to make educational decisions and control its finances. The part of the budget a school didn’t control was the small portion retained by LAs for legal and administrative duties. And the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) surveyed UK heads in 2009 and found that heads of UK schools already enjoyed more autonomy than in most other countries.

So in exchange for the small slice of the school budget that a school didn’t control an academy has to take responsibility for all the backroom services previously provided by the LA. Far from being free of these tasks as LA schools are, academies take on extra burdens which divert attention from their main responsibility: education.

But they can join chains, can’t they? John Burns, OBE, a supporter of academies, warned about the dangers of academy chains. He said that academies in “bureaucratic Federations” could “put to an end the very freedoms that individual schools were supposed to enjoy. Putting Academies into Federations can lead to individual Academies losing a large measure of control over their budgets and the appointment of staff, something which even maintained schools enjoy.”

What about free schools? Surely the groups who set them up can run them as they want? Not necessarily.  If they hand over the running of the school to an education provider then they relinquish control of the school. And if the education provider is a profit-making company then some of the money from taxpayers given to the school’s Trustees will end up with shareholders rather than being invested in education.

But didn’t Mr Gove say in September 2011 that “we don’t need to have profit-making organisations involved at the moment”? Yes, he did, but his words are contradicted by what was going on behind the scenes. Eleven months before, in October 2010, IES Sweden announced that the UK Government was “actively seeking” IES as a “potential provider” for free schools. IES has just been awarded a ten-year £21 million pound contract to run the proposed Breckland Free School and expects to receive 5%-8% profit after the first couple of years. The proposers compare this with the 15% kept back by the LA. However, they don’t say that none of this 15% is retained by the LA for ”profit”. Neither do they say - perhaps they don’t fully realise – that it won’t be the Trustees making decisions about what services to buy or who will be the Principal. It will be the education provider who will have more control over the school than any LA ever had.

”They create a prison and call it freedom.”

UPDATE: 19 October 2012

In September 2012, Internationella Engelska Skolan (IES) was taken over by private equity firm, TA Associates who were looking for school companies in which to invest.  At the same time, the Swedish Government is starting an enquiry into the long-term motivation of the profit-making companies that run most of Sweden’s free schools.  Bertil Ostberg, State Secretary for Education in Sweden, one of the pioneers of Swedish free schools, told BBC Radio 4’s The Report (11/10/12) that the Swedish Government wanted assurances from the owners of free schools that they are interested in long-term engagement and would not sell the schools for short-term gain. Bringing in the profit motive, he said, resulted in conflicting interests – those of the child versus the needs of shareholders for a financial return.


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rosemary fergusson's picture
Wed, 21/12/2011 - 11:54

From the link above re the £21 mill 10 year contract I see the Breckland School will open for 300 pupils in September 2012. I assume 300 is just the first year 7 intake and the school will enlarge by 300 each new year? So roughly speaking for every 300 pupils they'll get a total budget of £1.2 million in the first year rising to £6 mill by year 10 of the schools life. Total budget for the 10 year term will be approx £48 mill of which IES will have taken 44%. As salaries are, I believe, about 80% of a schools budget it's not really clear where salaries are coming from?.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 21/12/2011 - 14:50

Rosemary - I think 300 is the total size of the school but I can't be sure. The website of the proposers of the free school, Sabres Educational Trust, doesn't make it clear what the final size will be.

Emma Bishton's picture
Thu, 22/12/2011 - 00:31

Hello Rosemary I don't know for certain as I am in a different part of Suffolk and don't know the Breckland proposal but i would expect the first year intake at SABRES to be years 7, 8 and 9 combined. This is because (like other proposed free schools in Suffolk and the first-wave free school Stour Valley Community School) these free high schools have been established at the same time as a restructure in Suffolk education which sees the closure of middle schools and the consequent expansion of primary and upper schools to take on the year groups currently covered by middle schools (yrs 5-8).

The areas of Suffolk served currently by middle schools where there are free high school proposals to replace them are not densely populated, and school size follows suit. For instance in the case of the new Stour Valley Community School in Clare (a 1st wave free 11-16 school) this hopes for 540 pupils across years 7-11 once fully established. (Opting to create schools of this size raises all sorts of other questions about school size and viability which have been the subject of other debates on this site and which I won't go into here). The proposed free high school in Stoke by Nayland (which I and our local campaign group COMPASS have been opposing) hopes for around 600 pupils in total. Yet it is clear, sadly, that new schools like the Stour Valley one have been allowed to proceed with low numbers. Stour Valley opened in September with approaching 180 pupils across years 7, 8 and 9.

(Incidentally our campaign group asked the Stoke by Nayland high school proposers, and the DfE, what evidence of demand had been presented for their proposed school. Neither DfE nor the school proposers would release this information. I do not know what evidence of demand was presented originally for the Stour Valley school)

So, if pupil numbers do not increase, where does this leave contracts like that awarded to IES for Breckland? What level of financial security do they have in their contract, I wonder, and how dependent is this on actual pupil numbers at the new free schools? I am already concerned about the duplication of core costs in relation to free schools in funding two schools where one would suffice. I would really appreciate some assurance that contracts such as that with IES will not be maintained at levels as publicised if anticipated pupil numbers fail to materialise.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 22/12/2011 - 08:11

Emma - your question about what happens to fixed-term contracts with education providers if pupil numbers fail to materialize raises concerns. Will the school limp on with small numbers until the end of the contract? Will education providers expect to continue to the end of their contract or will they expect compensation if the school becomes unviable or, from the provider's point of view, no longer profitable? If the education provider finds the school is not as profitable as first thought, what steps would the provider take to increase profit? And would these steps, which might include such things as recruiting untrained or inexperienced teachers, increasing class size, using a large proportion of IT-based instruction, be in the best interests of the pupils? What, if anything, could the Trustees do about it if they were concerned about the standard of education which the provider was supplying?

The answer to the last question is nothing - the Trustees have handed over control to the provider. But the New Schools Network makes it clear that the responsibility for a school's performance remains with the Trustees not the education provider. This means that the Trustees take on the risk and the organisation running the school is not held responsible if the school fails.

"They create a prison and call it freedom."

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