Opinion

There aren’t enough academy sponsors for ‘coasting schools’ – so why not let for-profit providers try?



James Croft gives his take on plans to force “coasting” schools to become academies as revealed in today’s Queen’s Speech.

A shortage of high quality academy sponsors and an inefficient brokering system threaten successful delivery of government’s plans for improvement of coasting schools.

It has been evident for some time that there is a shortage of high quality academy sponsors with the capacity to take on and turnaround challenging schools.

In face of the government’s ambitious plans for “coasting schools”, fleshed out in some more detail in today’s Queens’ Speech, regional school commissioners are focusing their efforts on persuading individual academy heads to rise to the challenge through forming a Multi-Academy or Umbrella Trust.

The problem with this strategy, though convincing in theory, is that there is little incentive for the heads to do so on the current model, which provides inadequate capital for the development of such arrangements, and constrains these trusts in important ways from attracting and deploying the resources necessary for sustainable school improvement, such as constraints on the pooling of General Annual Grant funding, accumulation of surpluses, borrowing (whether secured against assets or on funding agreements), deployment of capital, and acquisition and disposal of fixed assets – all inhibit chains from deploying resources where they are needed most.

To change this there needs to be a comprehensive review of the financial controls operating on Multi-Academy and Umbrella Trusts.

There is a strong case to be made for opening up new supply by allowing a broader profile of education management organisation entry.

A considerable number of interested and internationally-proven providers have been put off to date by the prohibitive conditions imposed by central government. These providers have expertise in school improvement far exceeding that of many sponsors already engaged in managing schools. They include for-profit service providers, of which the education secretary remains politically uneasy. These should be re-engaged on an open-tender basis.

There are a number of advantages to this approach. A pilot of an open-tendered framework, allowing an element of price competition, would encourage realistic market-based appraisal of the costs of effecting the base level of improvement ministers expect, while at the same time providing an opportunity for innovation in performance measurement to incentivise high aspirations. This might be caste along the lines of a social impact bond, which model has proven successful in other public service markets.

This would be an altogether more effective approach to attracting the kind of suppliers we need than central government brokering could ever be.

The limited nature of the sponsor pool, together with an inefficient (and competitively stagnant) brokering system for matching schools in need of assistance with viable sponsors, have also resulted in the untenable situation in which almost half of the sponsored academies that have had an inspection post-intervention are themselves rated ‘inadequate’ or ‘requiring improvement’.

While it’s likely that the government will wait on 2017 and 2018 outcomes before actioning plans to “speed up the process” of taking over schools (to see if schools have risen to the challenges of the new testing regime), it is imperative that it take steps to address these issues in advance, before the credibility of its academy programme is further undermined.

There is good evidence internationally to suggest that greater autonomy in the governance and management of local schools has beneficial effects, but restrictive entry requirements and politically compromised central brokering leaves the system vulnerable to variable sponsor quality.



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6 Comments

  1. I have news for James. We have already tried “for-profit service providers” and it failed.
    IES Breckland was the first for profit free school and it was judged “inadequate” by OFSTED, as reported here http://schoolsweek.co.uk/for-profit-free-schools-307k-bailout/

    The Academisation policy has become like some sort of pseudo religious Aztec sun worship cult. In order to placate the population, the high priests deliver more and more sacrifices as their promises fail to deliver. There is absolutely no evidence that Academisation makes any difference to improving educational outcomes. But the political class does not need evidence. They want to drive up standards. Because standards are not improving fast enough they need to make more human sacrifices.

    When they argue that all children should be in good schools, who can disagree? Without a GCSE maths pass between them they tell parents that all children should be in above average schools. So they reclassify “satisfactory” schools as “requires improvement”, and then sacrifice the leaders.

    Most of us know what happened to the Aztec empire. It was a society based on fear, power, and human sacrifice, and it became extinct.
    The Aztecs did not have the benefit of scientific reason. Let’s get some science into our education policy decision making.

    The high priest of Academisation was deposed for a reason. Mr Gove was moved aside because his policies were pure voodoo. He dressed up his own fantasy ideas using a public school ability to put down reasonable people with a sharp wit.

    Nicky Morgan does not have the intellect of Mr Gove, but she should be able to see where these crazy policies are leading us. Let’s stop sacrificing the teaching profession to a cult. Privatisation is not the answer.

    • And don’t forget the three academies sponsored by the Learning Schools Trust, the charitable arm of for-profit Kunskapsskolan. Two were judged RI and one Inadequate (twice). It’s due to be handed to a new sponsor (at taxpayers’ expense), the Paradigm Trust, a small London-based academy chain with no experience of secondary education.

  2. For-profit schooling was Gove’s endgame. He told Policy Exchange before the 2010 election he would let groups like Serco run schools. This was at the launch of ‘Blocking the Best’, a report co-authored by the New Schools Network (the taxpayer funded charity which promotes free schools). The report said for-profit schools could be achieved by making state schools ‘independent’ and allowing them to outsource their provision to for-profit providers. This is what the group behind IES Breckland did. Academies are technically ‘independent’.

    A Policy Exchange spokesperson told Gove that the think-tank would nudge school policy in the direction of for-profit.

    It’s not the first time James Croft has pushed for-profit provision. He wrote a report for the Adam Smith Institute on for-profit free schools in 2011. But there’s a cheaper and more effective alternative to sponsorship – provide local support for schools which need it. The National Audit Office found this was more effective than formal intervention like academy conversion.

  3. Mr Croft, this is what I think. Why trade in facts if you can, as this piece indicates, get away with spin and flawed commentary. Simply because you and others keep repeating that academies and free schools are working does not counter evidence to the contrary from such sources as the Education Select Committee, which points to the fact that the evidence is inconclusive. By all the standards applied to intellectual discourse, this report lacks rigor. There is an answer to your opening question, ‘So why not let for-profit providers try?’. Those who have to date provided services are no more effective than local authorities and if “let them have a try” is the best advice on offer, we’d best not. Education is far too important to be handed over to non-elected, publicly unaccountable organisations. It’s disastrous enough that the service has to suffer the endless, mindless tinkering of successive governments. Let’s not give for-profit providers a try, shall we?