For-profit firm running free school still losing money

The sole for-profit company operating a free school in the UK has cut its operating loss by almost 80 per cent in a single year and could soon begin to balance its books.

The accounts of IES International English Schools UK Ltd, which is the educational service provider of the 300-pupil IES Breckland free school in Brandon, Suffolk, show its operating loss of £271,041 in the year to June 30 last year was cut to £54,773 this year.

The company’s turnover increased from £77,650 to £103,212 during the same period and, following revelations in Schools Week that debts of £307,369 owed to parent company IES Sverige AB were written off last year, only £76,725 of debt was written off in the latest financial year.

Last January Ofsted said IES Breckland was inadequate, but recent monitoring reports have praised its progress.

Martin Campbell (pictured above), a group spokesperson for the Suffolk Coalition Opposing Free Schools, said it was “still unclear” what the school’s sponsor, the charitable SABRES Educational Trust, which contracts out the school’s management, had received in return for the “£103,212 of public money it paid to IES Schools UK”.

“SABRES remains a single academy trust with no obvious skill in running schools. Breckland Free School continues to crawl its way slowly out of special measures, and I am sure that any other school in any other constituency would have been taken over by another sponsor by now.”

Mr Campbell said it was hard to think of “any comparable situation” in which a weak public-sector customer was “so completely controlled” by its main commercial supplier.

“I remain convinced that several local schools collaborating via a federation, local authority or similarly accountable local structure would be a far better solution to West Suffolk’s educational needs.”

But IES Schools UK defended its record, and said its parent company was “happy to write off these losses” as part of its support for the school, while the SABRES Trust highlighted areas where IES had invested in the running of the school.

A spokesperson said: “The operating losses made by IES UK Ltd represent the investment that the company is making … to support our school in Breckland during its drive to improve quality and provide the best possible education for students.”

When asked if it expected to make an operating profit next year, the spokesperson said “our priority is to ensure quality for students at the school” and that quality would remain the primary focus.

SABRES director Andrew Challiss said IES Schools UK had provided learning coaches to help teachers at the school, covered recruitment costs, paid for subject specialists and its managers gave “considerable time” to the school. It also provided an exchange to Sweden for pupils and invested in the library.

Breckland was not in a list of schools in the east of England issued with warning notices in October (see story below). The government has said it is not subject to such intervention because it is already being monitored following its Ofsted grading.

In March, inspectors said the school was making “reasonable progress”, and praised it for a rise in the number of classes where students’ work was of a high standard. In July, Ofsted said achievement was improving “in all year groups”.