For-profit schools are the Tories' real agenda

The barriers to profit-making by free schools are likely to be removed in time.

The increasingly toxic debate about education policy under Michael Gove needs to go beyond the headlines. Academies and free schools dominate attention while the ideology escapes analysis. Neither of these initiatives have anything to do with official rhetoric of improving school performance and nothing to do with the myth of the autonomous super head.

International evidence on academy and free school performance is abundant. In the US, the charter schools which are the models for academies were in trouble as long ago as 2009. The CREDO * study at Stanford University showed that after 16 years of operation, 17 per cent provided better educational opportunities, nearly half were no different from local public schools, and 37 per cent delivered worse results.

Meanwhile the free school programme is increasingly controversial in its homeland, Sweden. Since it began in 1995, the country has slipped down the PISA international league tables every time they have been published. In 2010 Michael Gove made massive propaganda out of relatively minor decline in PISA of English schools under the Brown government. In 2011 he went silent as his critics began to point out what was happening in Sweden.

This evidence made no difference to coalition policy and last November David Cameron pinned his colours to the mast by writing in the Telegraph - after a handful of free schools had been open for little more than half a term - that "Free schools are revolutionising education.... I know free schools work. I have seen for myself - and what's happening is fantastic". This was despite the complete absence of evidence: no test results, no inspection reports, no exam data.

The Prime Minister is not out of line with his party. Indeed, the Tories and other advocates of free and academy schools fail to provide hard systemic evidence. The furore over forced academisation of primary schools said much about government policy, but the key issue is that there is no overall evidence that academisation improves primary results, since Labour never set up any primary academies. The media completely failed to notice this absence.

Nor did it connect the imposition of the English Baccalaureate with academy schools. When the Department for Education published the first performance tables on EBac in January 2011, they showed that academies were the worst performers on the Gove indicator - only 7 per cent of pupils scored on EBac, compared to 15 per cent of pupils nationally and 13 per cent of comprehensive school pupils. While EBac is deeply flawed, it is astonishing that media did not notice that on the government's chosen measure, the government's favourite schools scored worse than any other schools apart from special schools

A major reason why the media choose to turn a blind eye to the increasingly blatant discrepancy between government claims and reality is the myth of school autonomy. Reflecting the ideology of the all powerful head of classic texts such as Goodbye Mr Chips and Tom Brown's Schooldays, academy supporters back the myth of the superman head teacher. Yet real heads are not at all happy. The recent TES/ASCL survey, showed rampant discontent.

Of head teachers, 67.9 per cent indicated the government's attitudes were likely to make them quit in the next five years. 54.4 per cent were considering leaving the profession. Only 5.5 per cent would recommend headship to a colleague, 49.7 per cent would not. Deputies - the next generation of school leaders - were just as unhappy. 73.4 per cent of deputy heads were less likely than a year ago to want to take on a headship. 60.8 per cent believed that the governments reforms would have a detrimental effect on standards - only 4.8 per cent believing they would improve education. 87.2 per cent of deputies polled thought OFSTED's planned changes would make senior leaders less likely to apply to become heads.

It is becoming an Orwellian world in education. But if the government reform programme is not about improving standards or giving power to superhuman head teachers - and it is not - then what is it driven by?

While the media seem to accept Gove's insistence that he is a pragmatist while his opponents are ideological, his reforms are profoundly ideological. They are driven by the overriding desire to allow firms to profit from schools and colleges. The Guardian revealed on 26 March that a federation that runs academy schools is planning to make profits - intially for the Further Education College that is the sponsor of three schools in the Federation.

For-profit schools are currently illegal, but the scheme exploits a loophole created by the 2011 Education Bill allowing FE to become for-profit. The Guardian argued that the changes "had gone largely unnoticed, allowing FE colleges to be privatised"; unnoticed by the media perhaps. The 50 extra powers taken by Gove in the Act were certainly complex, but the ideology underlying all the moves made by Gove has a clear logic. The right wing think-tank Policy Exchange has argued for profit-making in state schools, and Gove is a former chair of Policy Exchange. He has also used the Thatcherite Centre for Policy Studies to float ideas and make plans. The only suprise is that for so long his rhetoric of advancing social mobility and decentralising power has diverted attention from this more unpleasant reality.

Gove was at one point planning with Rupert Murdoch's News International to open an academy in the east end, a plan put on the back burner by the phone-hacking scandal. But elsewhere he has moved relentlessly to destroy democratic local authorities - the media do not get the implications of a collapsing middle tier in centralising political power - and replace them with for-profit chains of unaccountable secretive organisations negotiating with the Secretary of State. Pete Birkett, chief executive - these bodies rarely have heads or principals these days - said to the Guardian he expected the government to relax barriers to profit-making in future. The Lib Dems are opposed to this, and Labour's attitude is ambiguous. But there can be no ambiguity that this is the heart of the Tory plan for education.

Academies and free schools are Trojan Horses exploited by the right of the Conservative Party. It is far from likely that they deliver better educational outcomes in the majority of cases. But they will deliver guaranteed profits as they have done in Sweden and the USA. This is the real story behind the growth of academies and the decline of democratic local authorities. It is time the media took notice.

Trevor Fisher is the editor of Education Politics.

Education Secretary Michael Gove. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.