Academy chain wants to run FE College for profit

Janet Downs's picture
Barnfield Federation, which runs a chain of academies, wants to run a further education (FE) college for profit, reports the Guardian. The Education Act 2011 allows FE colleges to be run for profit and this has encouraged Pete Birkett, Barnfield’s chief executive, to investigate “creating a new business model for schools by establishing a private company that would raise funds from private equity and pay dividends to shareholders.”

Birkett believes that running schools as businesses would increase incentives to raise standards. But there is no firm evidence that introducing the profit-motive into education provision raises achievement.  The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) found that “School systems with above-average performance levels and a relatively weak association between performance and students' socio-economic backgrounds tend to grant greater autonomy to schools in formulating and using curricula and assessments and have less school competition.” So, countries with above-average PISA scores are likely to be those where there is less competition and greater autonomy although OECD warns that even when these two factors are present it does not guarantee high performance in reading. There are other factors to be considered: quality of teaching and strategies for narrowing the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged pupils. Recent Harvard research found that the use of “market-based reforms such as school choice or school vouchers have, at best, a modest impact on student achievement.” An academic study published by OECD* which reviewed large-scale studies focusing on the impact of market mechanisms on student achievement had reached the same conclusion in 2010. It found that “it might be that market mechanisms bear potentially positive effects, but even in cases where positive effects are found, they are very modest in size.”

The question about what makes a successful education system, a successful school and successful teaching is not answered by the simplistic call for competition and profit. The increasing emphasis on allowing English schools to make money for investors is driven by the idea of profit for shareholders rather than a genuine desire to raise standards. Birkett told the Guardian he had contacted a private equity group with an interest in education to discuss his proposals for a profit-making FE College. The organisation told him they believed the idea would attract interest from private investors. This is hardly surprising – Sam Freedman, policy adviser at the Department for Education, said "They [profit-making education providers] are not interested for altruistic reasons. It's an investment."

When education becomes just another service in which people can invest for a profit, then the “moral purpose” of education trumpeted by Mr Gove takes second place to paying dividends - investors expect a return or they wouldn't invest. In the meantime, the question of what makes a successful education system is sidelined.

*"Markets in education: an analytical review of empirical research on market mechanisms in education.  Education Working Paper No. 52” reflects the view of the authors.  It does not necessarily reflect the views of the OECD although OECD Economic Survey 2011 admitted that evidence of a link between increased user-choice and educational outcomes is "mixed". (NB OECD Economic Survey 2011 is not available freely in the internet but details of how to obtain a copy are here.)

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Ricky-Tarr's picture
Thu, 29/03/2012 - 12:59

The Government has published its White Paper on public services.

I hope you will take careful note of the bit on Free Schools:

"We will not allow any school to be established or owned by a commercial organisation as happens in Sweden. Parents, community groups and charities are the driving force of this policy and must remain so. "

Clear. Unambiguous.

So can we expect fewer paranoid conspiracy theories and a lot less thin-end-of-the-wedgery from you and Allan now, Janet?

Janet Lallysmith's picture
Thu, 29/03/2012 - 13:08

That statement is anything but clear and unambiguous.

Try substituting "managed", "run", "overseen" or "governed" for "established or owned" and a quite different picture emerges.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 29/03/2012 - 14:12

"Ricki Tarr has not lied to us, not in any material way. He has simply done what agents the world over do: he has failed to tell us the whole story." – George Smiley, "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy."

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