The profit motive won’t improve our schools

There is no evidence that commercial companies would improve results.

In a report published yesterday, former Cameron advisor James O’Shaughnessy identified an important problem. The conversion of thousands of schools into academies – which are free from local authority control – has left a vacuum with nobody to oversee school improvement at a local level. Michael Gove is finding that he cannot reliably monitor thousands of individual schools from his office in Whitehall. In the words of the report, this centralised system is "simply not viable" as a strategy for improving schools.

O’Shaughnessy’s first answer is for underperforming schools to be forced into academy chains. These are groups of schools that operate under an umbrella organisation which can monitor their performance and help them improve. There is some merit in this idea as many academy chains have proven to be successful at improving schools. Indeed it already happens to a large extent with failing schools – the report is just recommending an expansion of this approach to include schools that are mediocre, rather than plain bad.

O’Shaughnessy’s second answer is much more problematic. He argues that for-profit providers are best placed to take over the running of these schools and chains. According to him, only private companies – driven by the desire to make a profit – will have an incentive to turn around these schools. Without them the system will not be able to do the job.

There are good reasons why new providers can help our schools to improve – but they don’t have to be commercial companies. England already has a vibrant charitable independent sector and there is no shortage of organisations – like Harris and Ark – who are prepared to run our schools on a not-for-profit basis. Indeed academy chains in England are expanding at a far faster rate than the US.

Neither is there international evidence that commercial companies will improve results. As a recent IPPR report showed, profit-making companies have been brought in to run schools in Chile, Sweden and the US with little impact on standards.

Rather than turning to tired and unproven ideas around the power of the private sector, the government should adopt a different strategy for improving schools based on world class systems such as Canada and Finland. These countries can teach England three lessons on how to improve schools.

First, they rely on building the capacity of their teaching profession. In Finland, teachers are drawn from the top third of graduates, and those who work with the toughest children have masters degrees. In England, the government has taken the opposite approach – deregulating the sector and giving schools the freedom to recruit people who haven’t even qualified or trained as a teacher.

Second, these countries place schools in clusters where they collaborate with each other - sharing the best teachers, observing each other’s performance, spreading good practice and challenging each other to do improve. This sort of collaboration is hard to foster in the sort of market advocated by O’Shaughnessy - where companies have an incentive to compete for profit and market share rather than work together.  

Third, these countries all have structures in place to monitor the performance of schools and drive improvement at the local level. In Canada, school superintendents help to spot problems early and help tackle them before they escalate – they don’t leave it for distant bodies such as Ofsted or government ministers to do. O’Shaughnessy acknowledges the importance of this function in his report – and calls for a local schools commissioner to fill the role. But under his model this job would be put out to tender so that any organisation – public or private – would be responsible for assessing whether schools should be forced to change management. A far better model would be for school commissioners to be separate but accountable to local authorities, as IPPR had argued.

O’Shaughnessy's report has exposed a gap at the heart of the government’s school improvement agenda. The academies programme has created thousands of individual schools with little oversight or support to improve. Rather than putting his faith in commercial companies to provide the answer, Michael Gove should adopt a strategy that builds the capacity of the teaching profession, fosters collaboration between schools, and holds them to account for their performance through more democratic means.

Jonathan Clifton is a senior research fellow at IPPR. Follow him on Twitter: @jp_clifton

Michael Gove has said that for-profit schools "could" be introduced under a future Conservative government. Photograph: Getty Images.

Jonathan Clifton is a senior research fellow at IPPR.

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Emily Thornberry heckled by Labour MPs as tensions over Trident erupt

Shadow defence secretary's performance at PLP meeting described as "risible" and "cringeworthy". 

"There's no point trying to shout me down" shadow defence secretary Emily Thornberry declared midway through tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. Even by recent standards, the 70-minute gathering was remarkably fractious (with PLP chair John Cryer at one point threatening to halt it). Addressing MPs and peers for the first time since replacing Maria Eagle, Thornberry's performance did nothing to reassure Trident supporters. 

The Islington South MP, who voted against renewal in 2007, said that the defence review would be "wide-ranging" and did not take a position on the nuclear question (though she emphasised it was right to "question" renewal). She vowed to listen to colleagues as well as taking "expert advice" and promised to soon visit the Barrow construction site. But MPs' anger was remorseless. Former shadow defence minister Kevan Jones was one of the first to emerge from Committee Room 14. "Waffly and incoherent, cringeworthy" was his verdict. Another Labour MP told me: "Risible. Appalling. She compared Trident to patrolling the skies with spitfires ... It was embarrassing." A party source said afterwards that Thornberry's "spitfire" remark was merely an observation on changing technology. 

"She was talking originally in that whole section about drones. She'd been talking to some people about drones and it was apparent that it was absolutely possible, with improving technology, that large submarines could easily be tracked, detected and attacked by drones. She said it is a question of keeping your eye on new technology ... We don't have the spitfires of the 21st century but we do have some quite old planes, Tornadoes, but they've been updated with modern technology and modern weaponry." 

Former first sea lord and security minister Alan West complained, however, that she had failed to understand how nuclear submarines worked. "Physics, basic physics!" he cried as he left. Asked how the meeting went, Neil Kinnock, who as leader reversed Labour's unilateralist position in 1989, simply let out a belly laugh. Thornberry herself stoically insisted that it went "alright". But a shadow minister told me: "Emily just evidently hadn't put in the work required to be able to credibly address the PLP - totally humiliated. Not by the noise of the hecklers but by the silence of any defenders, no one speaking up for her." 

Labour has long awaited the Europe split currently unfolding among the Tories. But its divide on Trident is far worse. The majority of its MPs are opposed to unilateral disarmament and just seven of the shadow cabinet's 31 members share Jeremy Corbyn's position. While Labour MPs will be given a free vote when the Commons votes on Trident renewal later this year (a fait accompli), the real battle is to determine the party's manifesto stance. 

Thornberry will tomorrow address the shadow cabinet and, for the first time this year, Corbyn will attend the next PLP meeting on 22 February. Both will have to contend with a divide which appears unbridgeable. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.