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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To beat the Trump hype, we need a return to old-fashioned political virtues

If we want to resist the Trumpification of politics, what we need is restraint, duty and incorruptibility.

After the 1992 US presidential election, Alistair Cooke’s celebrated BBC radio series Letter from America struck a poignant note. Cooke described Bill Clinton’s worn jeans and checked wool shirt, contrasting them with George H W Bush’s buttoned-up Wasp manners and buttoned-down Ivy League shirts. Clinton’s style, Cooke argued, was a rebuke to a tired social and political establishment. His casualness was the new America.

Cooke, then 83, was honest enough to admit unease about this departure from the old, patrician modes and manners. “Along with the passing of George Bush,” he said, “we shall see, I fear, the passing of the blue blazer.” Cooke seemed right at the time. But don’t write off the blue blazer just yet. As ruling elites change, so does the appropriate counterpoint. To topple Bush’s stuffy golf club elites, Clinton picked up his saxophone, took off his tie and felt everyone’s pain. And now? The subtext of these turbulent months (the inevitable second question, prompted by “How do you beat Donald Trump?”) is: “What should ­tomorrow’s leaders, the leaders we crave, look and sound like?”

My conjecture is that, to beat Trump and his type – bling, shiny suits, dodgy deals – we should push towards centre stage an underestimated set of political virtues: restraint, duty and incorruptibility. If it weren’t for the gender associations, I would be tempted to call this quality gentlemanliness. Aside from personal virtue – signally lacking in the Clinton camp – how might decency inform public debate as it comes under attack from maverick showmen trained in the media circus? How can the middle ground regain its confidence?

First, level with the public. Maybe liberalism hasn’t failed so much as its messaging has failed. Instead of smashing the electorate over the head with the idea that everything is just great, make the case that not everything can be for the best in all possible worlds. As populists reach for empty slogans, a new space has opened up. Accept and exploit those asymmetries: more people are ready to hear uncomfortable truths than politicians imagine.

Kingsley Amis once argued that a writer’s voice should stay close to his speaking voice: not the same, but close. Adapting that idea, if politicians stayed closer in public debate to the truths that they articulate in casual conversation – some things are impossible; almost every policy creates a losing as well as a winning side; there really isn’t any money – they would be surprised how many people are ready to hear that not all problems can be evaporated into thin air. Stray too far from awkward truths and elections become about simple lies v tricksy lies.

Second, centrists do more harm than good when they rush to categorise dissenting opinion as not only wrong, but unacceptable. “Any suggestion that liberal values are not humanly universal,” as John Gray wrote in a recent NS essay, “will provoke spasms of righteous indignation.” Instead, we need to be more tolerant in our tolerance.

Third, stop pretending that everything desirable can be shoehorned into the “progressive” agenda. “I really care passionately about persevering with the common-sense middle ground and doing it quite well” is a problematic political sales pitch, but not for the reasons that are usually given. The gravest difficulty may come at the beginning, with the faux passion, rather than with the substance – public service and competence – underneath.

It is revealing that those closest to David Cameron expended so much energy trying to persuade us that he was not an updated version of Harold Macmillan. That is why the gay marriage reforms, though admirable, were accorded too much significance. Ah, Cameron was a natural crusader! But he paid a price for dressing up as a “radical” when greater challenges arrived. It weakened some of his strongest cards – calmness, perspective, proportion – just as politics was coarsening. Aren’t Tories supposed to understand the virtues of yesterday? In other words, as an electoral strategy to beat Trump (or Nigel Farage), I’d put up a Macmillan type over a Clinton type every time.

Fourth, cut ties with “messaging experts”. It’s a fraud. They teach that everything must be asserted with powerful conviction. Yet ideas unworthy of powerful conviction are best left shorn of them. The electorate has endured a communications version of crying wolf. As a result of the messaging game, when something genuinely important crops up, it sounds simply like the same old shtick.

Fifth, ditch the bogus quantification. Few things signal untrustworthiness more reliably than fake precision. Something shifted in me when George Osborne argued that Brexit would leave households £4,300 worse off. What, no decimal point? Voters understand uncertainty better than politicians imagine. Precise quantification used to sound professional. Now it sounds suspicious.

Finally, think about tone. Conventional wisdom holds that the mainstream must fight the Trumpian revolution on its own terms: a simple solution, memorably expressed, a guiding vision for the country or the world. If anyone has a good one to hand, I’m all for it. But what if – after decades of ­sophisticated argument and counterargument, as politics has solved the easy problems while parking the difficult or insoluble ones – we have reached a state of such evolved equilibrium that no such easy answer can exist?

Pretending otherwise is no longer a point of difference. It takes you towards the lowest common denominator. As Trump has shown, that is well-occupied territory. Perhaps wooing the angry mob is not the solution. Instead, the admirable and successful politician of the future will have to win back the support of moderate, sensible but disillusioned voters. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage