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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Leicester City's ascent shows how being a good loser can make you a great winner.

Claudio Ranieri wasn't expected to take a team to the top of Premier League. But dignity can earn you second chances.

Dignity isn’t so dated after all. Claudio Ranieri, champion; José Mourinho, unemployed. Dignity, it turns out, earns you second chances. It’s the Machiavels who run out of time.

The story of Leicester City’s Premier League triumph – one of sport’s finest – ended at Stamford Bridge on 2 May when Tottenham, Leicester’s nearest challengers, only managed a draw against Chelsea. In some respects, it also began there. Superficially, Ranieri “failed” during his stint as Chelsea’s manager from 2000 to 2004. Yet he never lost his dignity in one of football’s craziest jobs. He was courteous and amused to the end: the same qualities that helped to make him a winner at Leicester.

People remembered, both inside football and beyond. Ranieri’s sense of perspective and lightness of touch, evident during those hard times at Chelsea, brought him well-wishers in his better days at Leicester. His dignity as a loser has been recast as a benevolent and advanced form of strategy. Let’s hope that it is widely copied.

There is a danger of reading too much into Leicester’s splendid success. A small industry is already specialising in undercutting and puncturing overblown editorialising on “the meaning of Leicester”. Fine. Let scepticism have its moment, too.

But can we agree on a compromise? The romantics must concede that Leicester have a darker side, too. It wasn’t all charm and self-sacrificial teamwork. There was also a good measure of sports science, data analytics and street smarts. The Premier League has not become a laboratory of sporting social justice overnight. Leicester, it is true, also benefit from foreign capital. And the big guns – with their even bigger bank balances – will surely be back, sooner rather than later. History may yet record Leicester’s time at the top as a surprising interregnum in a war between giant dynasties.

Yes, I concede all of that. But will the cynics at least acknowledge some happier truths? First, a central defect of the Prem­iership has been its lack of competitive equipoise. It’s a great show but it always flirted with dangerous predictability.

Even its magical moments, such as Manchester City’s last-minute triumph in 2012, were unlikely only in the manner in which the story unfolded. Goliath beat David – on the day and over the course of the whole season – but it just took him a long time to finish the job. Yet we hailed the story, even though the favourites won, as evidence of redemptive uncertainty. Now, by contrast, we have the real thing with Leicester City’s win: genuine surprise, sport’s most precious currency.

Second, it’s time to wave goodbye to the lazy assumption, increasingly common in modern sport, that there is something intrinsically advanced about nastiness in players or managers. This meme continually creeps into the way we think about success. A manager’s rant is explained away as: “He really hates losing.” A scarcely veiled personal attack on a rival is justified as: “Real winners are all a bit like that.” Sneering contempt is whitewashed away, accepted as a burning hunger to win.

It all adds up, logically and unavoidably, not only to a lame justification of unpleasantness but also an implicit attack on behaving decently. If we say that John McEnroe’s racket-smashing is what makes him a winner, we are subtly belittling his opponent for keeping his cool.

In sport’s professional era, “good loser” has turned from one of the highest compliments into a patronising put-down. Being a good loser used to refer to behaviour when the ball was no longer in play, a virtue unconnected with winning or losing out on the pitch. Garry Sobers, Bobby Jones and Stefan Edberg were good losers. They were pretty good winners, too.

Somehow the notion of being a good loser turned 180 degrees, especially in English sport, which suffers from self-hating guilt about amateur values. It came to describe someone who is literally adept at losing – comfortable with defeat, adjusted to living that way. This accusation was levelled at Ranieri at the end of his term at Chelsea, as he suffered the humiliation of a public search for a replacement. José Mourinho, the chosen one, turned the knife when he was asked why Chelsea were sacking Ranieri. “I was told they wanted to win,” he scoffed. Mourinho voiced a widely held view: in place of a good loser would come a serial winner.

And now? The good loser is still with us, now a great winner, smiling and deflecting the credit. Ranieri almost missed the match that secured Leicester City’s victory on Monday night, because he had flown to Rome to have lunch with his 96-year-old mother. A little too stage-managed? If this is PR, let’s have more of it.

What of the bad loser who knew only victory? Mourinho is casting around hopefully, looking for another chance to mould a dressing room in his image. Yet it’s a risk, isn’t it, to give power to bad losers? And his prospective patrons are feeling risk-averse. The catastrophes of Real Madrid and his second stint at Chelsea, in which Mourinho lost the team, are hard to forget. Bad losers, contrary to the myth, are risky propositions because the earth is scorched when things don’t go according to plan.

Ranieri left Chelsea in good shape, having signed or identified most of the players who would go on to become the core of the team’s glory years. Mourinho, by contrast, left Chelsea in despair, the players seemingly mutinous and losing matches almost by design. Talent is powerful and Mourinho may be back. But it’s time to de-correlate winning and unpleasantness.

Machiavelli had the best aphorisms but he wasn’t always right. Leicester are champions and a good loser wears the crown. How much more can sport do?

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 05 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred