DfE denies inviting profit-making firms to be potential providers for free schools, so were these firms contacted before the last election?

Janet Downs's picture
A profit-making firm, Internationella Engelska Skolan (IES), was awarded a £21 million contract last December to run Breckland Free School. This move was welcomed by the Daily Telegraph who praised Mr Gove for acting “unobtrusively” in paving the way for state schools to make a profit.

IES announced on its website in October 2010 that the “UK Government has been actively seeking Internationella Engelska Skolan as a potential provider of the necessary vision and infrastructure to make the first wave of Free Schools a success.”

The DfE, however, says that it holds no copies of letters or emails to IES which invited the organisation to consider being a potential education provider. This information, revealed by a Freedom of Information request, also said the DfE does not hold a list of organisations that have been approached as potential education providers for free schools.

This raises the question about how the UK Government was able, as IES claims, to pursue a profit-making firm as a potential provider if it neither wrote letters or sent emails. But contact was made. Lord Hill met with IES to discuss its work in June 2010. He also had an introductory meeting with Kunskapsskolan, another Swedish profit-making provider the following month.

Proposers of two free schools, the Breckland Free School and the West London Free School, have visited IES schools in Sweden. Contact between IES and potential free schools is, therefore, encouraged, if not by the Government then certainly on its behalf. And this contact began before the Coalition came into power.

Among the comments following the Telegraph article was one from mikestallard, proposer of a free school in Wisbech (12.15, 12/16/2011) which said, “We tried to start up a free school with IES. In March 2010, I personally attended an initial meeting in London with Rachel Wolf [New Schools Network] and Michael Gove where the question of profit actually came up. I remember Michael Gove saying it was no problem, ’You simply subcontract’. The CEO of IES, Peter Fyles, gave a speech as an honoured expert”. Mike Stallard also left a comment on this site about his proposed free school. He wrote, “we worked closely with a Swedish organisation which was recommended by Michael Gove before the election.”

This perhaps explains why the DfE has no record of correspondence between the Department and IES. Contact appears to have been made while Mr Gove was in opposition. He was recommending profit-making providers to potential free schools in March 2010 well before the legislation had been passed that made free schools a possibility. In the same month he said he would have no problems with allowing profit-making firms like Serco from running English state schools.

None of this was mentioned in the Conservative manifesto – the only reference to providers was that “any good provider” would be able to set up a new Academy. This is not the same as any profit-making provider can run a school which other people have set up. I think it’s called sophistry.

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Toby Young's picture
Fri, 20/01/2012 - 17:19

For-profit providers were allowed to operate taxpayer-unded schools under the last government – and it actually happened when Ed Balls was SoS at the DCSF. (Turin Grove/EdisonLearning.) I blogged about Ed Balls's misleading claim during the general election campaign that this was a new policy being proposed by Michael Gove here:


It would have been odd if there was anything about this in the Conservative election manifesto as manifestoes usually set out those policies a party intends to introduce, not continue.

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 21/01/2012 - 11:48

You are correct, Toby. EdisonLearning was given a three-year contract to run Turin Grove School in 2007 until its closure in 2010 and this happened “unobtrusively” (to use the DT’s phrase) under a Labour government. And you are also correct in implying that this paved the way for an expansion of the scheme when the Coalition came to power. This was anticipated by the Conservatives who courted profit-making companies with a view to running English schools before the last election. However, this was not made explicit in the Conservative Manifesto.

It's a pity they decided to continue the "ratcheting up" of this policy which had been introduced stealthily by Labour. It smacks of deceit. As Ball said when asked about privatisation: "With each new piece of legislation, each new regulation or procedure, each new category of school, new possibilities emerge. Things that were unthinkable become possible, and they then become obvious and necessary. I think we are about to see another ratchet up."


There was nothing about profit-making providers in the Labour Manifesto of 2005 either, just a reference to new education providers being welcomed into the state system if they could help "boost standards".


As Sir Humphrey Appleby might have said, "The reference to new education providers does not rule out profit-making companies. However, it doesn't do to make it too obvious - the electorate wouldn't like it. It is wise to move stealthily. Then when it becomes apparent that profit-making companies are running English schools, it will be too late. Government, Minister, is about doing what you want under the cloak of giving the electorate what they think they voted for."

The policy has been hidden behind sophistry – profit-making schools will not be allowed but the companies that are invited to run them can.

Janet Lallysmith's picture
Sat, 21/01/2012 - 21:33

Goodness, Toby. Nearly 2 years later, and you could just substitute your name for Ed Balls' in that title and you'd have a nice cameo of your dallying in education.

Rosie Fergusson's picture
Fri, 20/01/2012 - 22:48

Months and months ago I looked at the "who's lobbying who" websites and the ministry meeting schedules and I'm pretty certain the first few meetings of May and June of the new Government were Edison, Academy chains and others ( though I could be dementing because I can't find any such schedules now) .

And Toby is correct re the last Labour Government BUT it is rarely acknowledged that this was a new way to rescue FAILING schools , which with the best will in the world could not be described as our top educational assets. If a school could be turned around then we could not begrudge some profit or executive job creation scheme being part of the plan. The ability to vary teachers pay and conditions also meant higher salaries and bonuses could be paid to get GREAT teachers into these schools.

The Coalition have turned this about to enable the good schools to be isolated, cherry-picked and possibly profits delivered with no appreciable improvement in performance .

What will happen to the staffing in the old sponsership academies now they no longer have a recruitment advantage of offering higher salaries.

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 21/01/2012 - 11:53

But EdisonLearning’s much-hyped improvement of Turin Grove School doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. EdisonLearning says on its website that its involvement increased the proportion of pupils gaining 5 GCSEs A*-C (including English and Maths) from 11% to 28%, an improvement rate of over 100%. EdisonLearning took over Turin Grove, then named Salisbury School, in 2007 shortly before the 2007 cohort took GCSEs. The number of pupils gaining 5 GCSEs A*-C (including English and Maths) in 2007 rose to 22% which suggests that the school had already taken measures to improve its performance. In 2008, 19% reached this level of achievement. In 2009 and 2010, the number of pupils gaining 5 GCSEs A*-C (including Maths and English) rose to 27%. EdisonLearning said it had achieved a CVA rating of 1020, but the DfE website give a CVA score for 2010 of 1004.5.



The prime responsibility of profit-making companies is to its shareholders. And maximising profits can mean cutting corners. Parents at the independent Southbank International School accused Cognita of turning the school into a “money-making machine” at the expense of the children’s education. Taxpayers will not be happy if this happens in English state schools.


Rosie Fergusson's picture
Sat, 21/01/2012 - 13:02

My point is that Labour's sponsership academies were the exploration of a possible solution , some worked, some didn't, but I think all were in conjunction with LEA approval . The trusts involved could only claim an agreed % to cover overheads , although this did create some high salaries.

The worry with the Coalitions distortion of the Academy ethos is that Education companies will now drive the opening of free schools and require a shareholder dividend over and above overheads .

Guest's picture
Sat, 21/01/2012 - 13:24


Could you provide any evidence or is this purely guess work? There is a lot of paranoia around profit making but no evidence.

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 21/01/2012 - 13:35

Guest - see my point above about Cognita accused of putting profit before education. If that can happen at a fee-paying school, then it is likely to happen at a state one. And some charity chains running academy schools are using taxpayers' to pay senior staff six-figure salaries, with some on £240,000 or more.


Rosie Fergusson's picture
Mon, 23/01/2012 - 12:46

I consider that to prove that Labour's Academy policy was solely concerned with failing schools, you only have to consider that the links with the LEA were retained , that there was no detrimental impact on LEA core-funding and that the teaching Unions didn't scream blue murder . This is absolute evidence of Labour's intentions concerning Academies . Labour was working from the bottom up, developing best practice in the process.

If you want I could list all Labour's Academies and they would all have been failing schools ( some are still failing ).

Labour enabled the establishment of the large Trusts that provided the Educational Consultancy, HR services , etc at a fixed % overhead; they could employ external profit-making sub-contractors but there had to be public Annual Reports on expenditure ; the LEA and Dept of Educ still had some degree of auditing control over expenditure.

This open financial reporting is not required with the new Convertor Academies or Free Schools partly because the joint sponser link with the LEA is no longer there ; there can be Trusts comprised solely of parents who are happy to relinquish all financial control to the Company with the snappiest Powerpoint presentation.

Anybody appraising the media's criticism/celebration* of Academies (* delete as appropriate) has to understand how different the Sponsership and Convertor Academies are.

The right wing will use the achievements of the sponsership academies ( whose only way is up) to justify their Convertor Academies when in fact the two types cannot directly be compared. The far left , in their contempt for everyone except themselves, condemn Labour for giving the Conservatives the idea in the first place.

I do not believe LEA's to be infallible and recognise that reform was needed but to destroy them so slowly and so irrespective of the impact on the schools under their wing is unspeakable.

I , being of a pragmatic and objective disposition ( traits generally not considered as virtues on internet forums) believe we have to make Free Schools and Convertor Academies work, not because I approve of them but because they are the only way to procure investment in education.

The Free School and Convertor Academy process is open to abuse and exploitation , much more so than under the LEA's, ; the high-profile Free School Champion has to recognise this and not defend the Free School philosophy unreservedly.

Meanwhile, as my sister fancies a headteacher post I am beginning to formulate my own Tower Hamlets (TH) Project. I propose I work with the LEA to formulate a whole series of Free School Annexes each partnered and sited within a TH Primary. The additional school space will enable all the children to be taught by a Teacher, Trainee Teacher and Teaching Assistant in class sizes of 20. [i.e following the commendable best practice model so stunningly demonstrated by the new Canary Wharf Free School]
Do you think Mr Gove will fall for it?

Rosie Fergusson's picture
Mon, 23/01/2012 - 13:06

Fuller reply below...if you plough through minutes for the first early 2010 Parliamentary Committee meetings on the Academies Bill, chaired by Keith Vaz there is an entertaining but dark moment; Mr Vaz queries what financial auditing processes are proposed and the D of E representative weakly replies that "they hadn't really thought about it but perhaps the charity commissioners would take it on ?" Mr Vaz tells them to go away and think about as this will be public money and he expects to see decent accountability.

er anyone know if they've made any progress on that one? Still the charity commissioners I think ?

Rosie Fergusson's picture
Mon, 23/01/2012 - 13:09

The full commitment of Mr Gove to due diligence in the future financial auditing of the new Schools is clealry evident if you plough through the minutes for the first early 2010 Parliamentary Committee meetings on the Academies Bill. Ably chaired by MP Keith Vaz there is an entertaining but dark moment; Mr Vaz queries what financial auditing processes are proposed and the D of E representative weakly replies that “they hadn’t really thought about it but perhaps the charity commissioners would take it on ?” Mr Vaz tells them to go away and think about as this will be public money and he expects to see decent accountability.
er anyone know if they’ve made any progress on that one? Still the charity commissioners I think ?

Guest's picture
Sat, 21/01/2012 - 14:01


Aside from your one example of Cognita, are you able to provide any other evidence?
Your Cognita example should of course be seen in the context of the hundreds of schools run by Cognita and similar companies that do so without issue.
In fact the Cognita example is very positive as it shows parents can rectify the problem through the correct channels as occurred in this case.

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 21/01/2012 - 15:50

Guest - Cognita runs some 40 schools not all of which are in the UK. You are correct that the problem between Cognita and the parents of children at the Southbank International School was resolved but only at a price: Cognita promised to increase staff wages, invest £1 million in each of its three sites, and spend £20 million on a new campus*. It is unlikelly that profit-making firms would resolve complaints from parents of children in state schools in such a generous manner. To whom would state school parents complain if the school governors did not satisfy parental concerns about profits being made at the expense of their children's education?

Chris Woodhead, chairman of Cognita, admits he is paid more than when he was head of Ofsted, and says that he expects that he, or his estate because he is seriously ill, will sell the venture capital investment at a profit. The collapse of Southern Cross Healthcare should act as a warning to those who view venture capital investment in services to vulnerable people which, of course, includes children, as benign.

As stated above, the senior staff in academy chains can earn substantial sums. E-Act, for example, had to drop plans for one academy after the charity faced allegations of financial mismanagement in 2009. Sir Bruce Liddington, E-Act director general, has also been criticised for his salary and for claiming expenses for a stay in a luxury hotel - money which he has since repaid.


*TES Interview with Chris Woodhead, 30 September 2011, not available on-line.



Rosie Fergusson's picture
Mon, 23/01/2012 - 13:42

Guest- or should I say Jake/Peter/Spartacus ??
there's also Janet's post at

Guest's picture
Mon, 23/01/2012 - 17:24

Rosie, Janet etc

I am not Jake, Peter or Spartacus.
There should be a tweak to this website to only allow one person to register under each username.
At the moment there are at least 2 people posting as Guest, however I will discontinue until the site administrator rectifies the issue.

Rosie Fergusson's picture
Tue, 24/01/2012 - 11:00

That's a relief....and to be honest your posts did not have the saturday night chardonnay fuelled tone of those of Spartacus.

Anyway back to sponsership vs convertor academies if you look at the Ofsted Report for the struggling comp Harrogate HIgh via this link


( the one for 2008 Not 2011) you can see how the sponsership Academy Trusts could be considered a force for good with Outwood Grange Trust , Wakefield guiding improvements in Harrogate High [ the relationship was brokered by North Yorkshire LEA who were clearly unwilling or unable to recruit support from the 3 adjacent Kudos Comps in Harrogate ( Harrogate Grammar, St Aidans and Rossett].

Rosie Fergusson's picture
Wed, 25/01/2012 - 16:59

Busting the myth that big business ( or heaven forbid BANKERS!!) isn't moving in on Acadamies and Free Schools the D of Educ website has published the following.


Barclays Bank are nobly pledging support to the new Academies and Free Schools - wonder why that is ? They also want to encourage their senior staff to become Governors of the schools . Wonder why that is ?

The report strangely fails to mention why they won't be providing free banking or any assistance to maintained schools
or even the LEA's

"In particular, Barclays will target much of its support at academies, Free Schools, University Technical Colleges (UTCs) and Studio Schools. These independent, state-funded schools are free from local authority control, making external expertise on issues like finance and HR invaluable."

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