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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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.