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.

Photo: Getty
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Something is missing from the Brexit debate

Inside Westminster, few seem to have noticed or care about the biggest question mark in the Brexit talks. 

What do we know about the government’s Brexit strategy that we didn’t before? Not much, to be honest.

Theresa May has now said explicitly what her red lines on European law and free movement of labour said implicitly: that Britain is leaving the single market. She hasn’t ruled out continuing payments from Britain to Brussels, but she has said that they won’t be “vast”. (Much of the detail of Britain’s final arrangement is going to depend on what exactly “vast” means.)  We know that security co-operation will, as expected, continue after Brexit.

What is new? It’s Theresa May’s threat to the EU27 that Britain will walk away from a bad deal and exit without one that dominates the British newspapers.

“It's May Way or the Highway” quips City AM“No deal is better than a bad deal” is the Telegraph’s splash, “Give us a deal… or we walk” is the Mirror’s. The Guardian opts for “May’s Brexit threat to Europe”,  and “May to EU: give us fair deal or you’ll be crushed” is the Times’ splash.

The Mail decides to turn the jingoism up to 11 with “Steel of the new Iron Lady” and a cartoon of Theresa May on the white cliffs of Dover stamping on an EU flag. No, really.  The FT goes for the more sedate approach: “May eases Brexit fears but warns UK will walk away from 'bad deal’” is their splash.

There’s a lot to unpack here. The government is coming under fire for David Davis’ remark that even if Parliament rejects the Brexit deal, we will leave anyway. But as far as the Article 50 process is concerned, that is how it works. You either take the deal that emerges from the Article 50 process or have a disorderly exit. There is no process within exiting the European Union for a do-over.  

The government’s threat to Brussels makes sense from a negotiating perspective. It helps the United Kingdom get a better deal if the EU is convinced that the government is willing to suffer damage if the deal isn’t to its liking. But the risk is that the damage is seen as so asymmetric – and while the direct risk for the EU27 is bad, the knock-on effects for the UK are worse – that the threat looks like a bad bluff. Although European leaders have welcomed the greater clarity, Michel Barnier, the lead negotiator, has reiterated that their order of priority is to settle the terms of divorce first, agree a transition and move to a wider deal after that, rather than the trade deal with a phased transition that May favours.

That the frontpage of the Irish edition of the Daily Mail says “May is wrong, any deal is better than no deal” should give you an idea of how far the “do what I want or I shoot myself” approach is going to take the UK with the EU27. Even a centre-right newspaper in Britain's closest ally isn't buying that Britain will really walk away from a bad deal. 

Speaking of the Irish papers, there’s a big element to yesterday’s speech that has eluded the British ones: May’s de facto abandonment of the customs union and what that means for the border between the North and the South. “May’s speech indicates Border customs controls likely to return” is the Irish Times’ splash, “Brexit open border plan “an illusion”” is the Irish Independent’s, while “Fears for jobs as ‘hard Brexit’ looms” is the Irish Examiner’s.

There is widespread agreement in Westminster, on both sides of the Irish border and in the European Union that no-one wants a return to the borders of the past. The appetite to find a solution is high on all sides. But as one diplomat reflected to me recently, just because everyone wants to find a solution, doesn’t mean there is one to be found. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.