New lucrative autonomy

The coalition’s announcement of a new wave of schools and academies will open up a larg­­e market in

The new "free" schools and the greatly increased number of state-funded academies are creating a new market for education services, formerly provided by local authorities. Companies such as Serco, ARK and Cognita are actively considering the prospects of expansion in the education field.

Two different, but related, markets are being created by the Academies Act 2010. The first is the government's push for so-called "free" schools to be created by parent and teacher groups.

The second, and potentially much larger, market being created is the provision of a range of services, from human resource management to school improvement capability, to both the new academies and to the free schools.

Some of the media coverage on free schools has referred to "parent-run" schools, but they will not in fact be run by parents. They are much more likely to be managed by companies as part of a wider group of schools.

“Parent-promoted" schools would be a more accurate title, although several of the 16 proposals accepted by the secretary of state, Michael Gove, in September are not being planned by parent groups, but by entrepreneurial teachers or established groups. The primary school in Hammersmith, promoted by ARK and the Sutton Trust, is one such example; the secondary school in West Yorkshire promoted by a young graduate of the government's Future Leaders scheme is another. ARK has had its plans accepted for a second "free" school and seven out of the 16 are faith schools - Christian, Jewish, Hindu and Sikh.

While most of the press coverage in the run-up to the Academies Act being passed in July centred on the plans of the journalist, Toby Young, to start the West London Free School with compulsory Latin (see page ??), the majority of schools are not one-off ventures of this type, but a concerted effort by faith and commercial organisations to expand their activities in the state sector. There have been 700 expressions of interest to the New Schools Network, which has been funded by the government to advise free school promoters, and 100 of these have resulted in an application.

Many of the groups planning these schools are in discussion with commercial companies to back them and provide services. E-ACT, which currently sponsors 11 old-style academies, has announced that it is in discussion with 15 to 20 groups promoting free schools. In addition, it is hoping to double the number of academies in its portfolio.

Apart from E-ACT, commercial companies and high-turnover charities in the field include Serco, the FTSE100 out-sourcing company that has managed local authority education services in Bradford and Walsall; CfBT, the large worldwide charity running the school advisory and improvement service in Lincolnshire; Cognita, the company that runs low-price independent schools; the Dubai-based GEMS Education with schools in numerous countries, whose recently appointed UK chief executive unwisely suggested that all schools should have an incompetent teacher; and EdisonLearning, which runs schools in the US as well as a substantial stable of school improvement projects in England.

All these companies have well-known leaders. Former England Schools Commissioner and headteacher, Sir Bruce Liddington, is chief executive of E-ACT; CfBT is headed by Neil McIntosh, former head of the charity Shelter; GEMS Education is owned by Sunny Varkey; the chairman of Cognita is the former chief inspector Chris Woodhead; EdisonLearning's UK operation is headed by former Essex chief education officer, Paul Lincoln.

The EdisonLearning website offers a good summary of the services provided by these companies. It cites "outcome-driven school improvement services, skills-focused curriculum innovation and approaches to foster the voice of the learner." Their "school management solutions" include "educational advice for academy and new school sponsors and specialist educational support for local authorities".

As well as running stables of schools, therefore, these companies also a full range of services to schools. Both of these roles are also being fulfilled by an increasing number of highly successful schools, which are transferring their expertise into failing schools. They are commissioned to do this by central or local government, with the National College for the Leadership of Schools and Children's Services brokering the support under its National Leaders of Education (NLE) initiative.

In this NLE scheme, successful heads and their senior staff move in to a school in difficulty and there is strong evidence to show that the ensuing change to classroom management, behaviour and financial management rapidly translates into improved examination results. Schools such as Outwood Grange Wakefield, the Harris Federation of South London Schools, the Cabot Learning Federation in Bristol and ARK have been given the status of Accredited School Groups, providing a range of school improvement services.

Local authorities are increasingly commissioning these schools to provide the services that they themselves are no longer staffed or funded to provide. Some local authorities are already talking to commercial companies about the provision of the whole range of school services, as EdisonLearning currently does for Lincolnshire. If, as expected, large numbers of secondary schools convert to academy status, some local authorities will be left with very few secondary schools, or perhaps none. So, it is hardly surprising that some local authorities, such as Middlesbrough, are actively pursuing the policy of encouraging all their secondary schools to become academies, so that they can work out a more coherent future relationship with their secondary schools than is likely to be the case in areas where schools opt out in a piecemeal way.

Schools are being offered by the coalition government a more autonomous way of working, with the additional funding that accompanies academy status looking very attractive at a time of economic retrenchment. Some of these academies will continue to buy services, where they are efficiently run, from the local authority, but many more will look outside the authority to the new market of entrepreneurial schools and commercial providers for their human resources and school improvement support, or even for federation under a single governing body. It is hardly surprising that so many organisations are looking at providing these services in what could become a lucrative new market.

Dr John Dunford is an independent education consultant, formerly a head teacher and general ­­secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders

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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.