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