Business failure rates should not be the model for education

Those of us who have been wondering why it has taken five weeks to release the report into the first Ofsted inspection of Suffolk free school IES Breckland may have had their answer this morning. The first “for profit” state school was used to illustrate a piece in the Daily Telegraph by editor of The Spectator, Fraser Nelson, on the “free school programme”.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/secondaryeducation/10665313/Free-schools-will-stumble-the-test-is-how-well-they-recover.html

The article reports that “Ofsted’s report is yet to be published but, given the circumstances of the inspection, it would not be surprising if IES Breckland were categorised as “inadequate””. The “circumstances” referred to being a visit by Her Majesty’s inspectors when the school was “to put it politely, in transition”.

ofstedMr Nelson seems unhappy that “Ofsted had been tipped off that there was trouble” but, of course, inspections can be triggered anywhere, for any state school, if concerns are raised and free schools had been told to expect a visit in their second year. He seems not to consider it odd that a school of that vintage should already be “in transition”, merely using it as evidence that the school’s sponsors were not sufficiently close to its operation. One may ask why we are paying them then.

Others far better qualified will cover the specifics of this case and provide analysis of the school’s problems but I am intrigued as to why what appears to be a pre-emptive strike against the critics of free schools is appearing in a national newspaper at this point. In addition, I am confused that it seems to argue that these state schools should be judged differently to existing ones and, critically, that we should accept a high rate of failure as the price for “choice”.

Nelson cites “350 “council-led”” schools as being currently judged as “inadequate” and 40 that have been in special measures for the past 18 months as illustrative of failure within the established state system. He is right to say that this is unacceptable but he does not provide an indication of what percentage of schools this represents. According to the January 2013 School Census there are 20,065 state funded schools in England.

This follows the following statement:

“This time next year, there will be 300 free schools in England – and you can bet, by then, that there will have been more scandals. If 300 new businesses were to start, you’d certainly expect a degree of trouble in at least 30 of them. And, for some, serious trouble.”   

The piece goes on to explain why this should be considered acceptable. However, at no point are the “consumers” of these “businesses” considered, those who don’t get a second crack at Key Stage 3 – the pupils and parents.

Irritation with Ofsted for applying the same standards to new schools as existing ones is palpable within this article and, as recently reported, is mirrored by the Secretary of State. This will amuse some as, of course, free schools are not judged on the same data as existing schools as they have no exam results to compare. However, it is not acceptable to give a special pass to those schools that are part of a politically sensitive project – all state funded schools should be as accountable as one another.

It is in this context that the blog of education writer Laura McInerney should be viewed with some concern. It appears to indicate that some free schools may be receiving a “pre-Ofsted, Ofsted inspection”. Her findings are available here:

http://lauramcinerney.com/2014/02/25/what-do-you-notice-about-this-free-school-monitoring-form/?utm_content=buffer4692a&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer

Ofsted reports are also important for those “consumers” we spoke of earlier. For most parents this will be the first view that they would have had of a school that has not been provided by the sponsors or proposers since its existence was first raised.

IES (2)I have dealt elsewhere with the extraordinary licence that free school proposers are given to make unsubstantiated, and unprovable, claims about what they will offer and subsequently deliver. As Janet Downs of the Local Schools Network has written this week, this has caused the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to reprimand several free schools for describing themselves as “outstanding” in their publicity, alluding to the top Ofsted grade which they do not have.

Note that one of those schools censured is IES Breckland.

http://www.localschoolsnetwork.org.uk/2014/02/asa-censures-ies-breckland-and-academy-chains-for-using-outstanding-in-marketing-when-not-entitled-to-do-so/outstanding

There has to be something very wrong with a system that rewards PR over substance, particularly where public money is concerned, but it is even worse when children’s education is at stake. The free market “collateral damage” of closing a school may be acceptable to those such as Fraser Nelson but for those of us who see the provision of education, rather than an opportunity for profit, as the central purpose of our schools it should be an anathema.

That is why I believe passionately that the approvals process for new schools should be far more rigorous, to borrow a popular phrase, than it is now. At present proposers are merely required to collect sufficient “evidence of demand” for their concept to stand a good chance of gaining initial approval and an initial state grant. The basis on which this is collected is virtually up to them and they can reassure responding parents that their approval “does not commit them to anything”.

From those I have reviewed, including the latest example in our neighbouring market town Ongar, the lack of detail presented about a project at the pre-approval stage is extraordinary when you consider what is at stake. Promises to be “outstanding” are common place but it is rare to see detail on proposers, evidence of their expertise to run a school or handle money efficiently and transparently, the curriculum they propose to offer, how many students they would need to be sustainable, whether a viable sixth form could result or outline school policies for example.

But, as we are seeing, with these “businesses” it is not those running them who are taking the risk. It is young people and their parents who must do so and the neighbouring schools, who have often been deprived of resource as a result of their establishment, who will be expected to pick up the pieces if they fail.

And those championing them are taking the least risk of all.

Stephen Mayo

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