Free schools will invite corruption unless we fix them now

American free schools went through 20 years of shady deals because of their shoddy legislation. Now Britain is heading down the same path.

The coalition government pulled a clever trick with free schools. While swathes of normally vigilant people became consumed by worry about the suitability of Toby Young running a school, few of them realised that Free schools were largely a tiny distraction from a much wider-spread and more important education reform: “academisation”, the quasi-privatisation of state schools.

“Quasi-privatised” does not mean for-profit. UK state schools cannot be profit-making (though significant parts of the right would like it to be). No, academies are considered quasi-private because they are run by private non-profit companies, independently set up for the purpose of running schools. Before the change, most schools were owned and operated by local authorities. Academies effectively by-pass localism and instead get money directly from central government, which then contracts the non-profit organisation to run the school service via a “funding agreement”. Free schools are simply new schools that went through a special bidding process before they start up - but once their doors are open they are an academy like any other. And by “any other”, we are now talking about the majority of schools, since over half of England”s secondary schools operate as academies.

The first academies opened under Labour, built in areas where schools historically struggled to flourish. It was argued that giving the new school leaders greater flexibility would help with meeting the unique demands of teaching in challenging areas. A local “sponsor” was also commonly sought – someone who could bring capital, business acumen and a “brand name” to overcome the area’s poor reputation. However, this small, almost micro-managed, bundle of schools under Labour grew profusely post-2010. The coalition extended academy rules – all new schools must now be academies – and gave existing schools the opportunity to “convert”, giving up their link to the local authority in favour of direct cash and extra freedom. Enthusiasm for the change was revealed in a recent National Audit Office report where the vast majority of convertor Heads said they welcome greater freedom. The recent GCSE performance tables also suggest that academies do appear to be improving exam scores at faster rates, though only marginally.

So letting schools “go free” sounds great. But in the US, where a similar system has been operating for over twenty years, there have been some spectacular problems.

In Arizona the government went hard for autonomy when the policy began in the early 90s. Similar to Gove they encouraged speedy take-up and within two years had over a hundred schools. But the speed meant the State Department for Education could not keep up: the approvals process was not rigorous, schools started failing without a clear process for closing them, and financial issues mounted up.

Unlike in England, for-profit groups are allowed to run schools in thirty-two of America’s fifty states. While the impact of for-profits on student achievement is still debatable, several infamous for-profit “disasters” have left people questioning the appropriateness its appropriateness in education.

The most widely-reported early failures were in the Edison School network. Set up by Chris Whittle in the 1992, Edison aimed to make profit via efficient yet brilliant schools. Initially luring pupils in with promises of free laptops and bilingual education, once schools were taken over Edison closed libraries, sacked employees, and released misleading performance data. The laptops and bilingualism were also soon abandoned. Some argued this demonstrated the worst excesses of for-profit greed; others, that bad financial decisions in Edison’s early days meant cutbacks were more a scrabble for cash than anything sinister. Regardless of motive, the moral of the Edison story is that handing money over to an autonomous private company makes it hard to track, and even harder to enforce its sensible use.

Another common racket in the US is around real estate. In several states, non-profit school organisations created real estate “sister” companies that purchased buildings which they then rented back to the non-profit school company, often at rents far higher than market value. Hence money from the taxpayer - given to the school for the pupils’ benefit – actually went into paying rent to a for-profit company only able to gain the deal because of its close connections to the non-profit group. In a similar bout of high jinks, six Imagine charter schools – with more than 4,000 students enrolled - had to be unilaterally closed last summer in Missouri when a complicated real estate scandal was uncovered.

Of course, financial irregularities are not solely an academy problem. All schools can fall foul of misdemeanours. But the legislation governing Academies was pushed through in five days using a “compressed” Parliamentary process normally reserved for anti-terror laws. Much of the rushed law remains unclear and open for exploitation. For example, while academies must be run by non-profit groups, the non-profit company can hire for-profit organisations to manage the day-to-day operations of the school or for the lease of premises. These are precisely the types of loopholes in law commonly exploited in US.

One way to circumvent inevitable problems would be listening to those in the US already wise to such scams. “States didn’t realise that bad people would want to get involved, but there will always be some people who care more about the dollars than the kids” says Dr Louann Bierlein Palmer, Professor of Educational Leadership at Western Michigan University. From the late 1990s onwards Palmer analysed the differences in charter school laws springing up as each state implemented the policy in its own way. Gradually she noticed that some legal frameworks encouraged fast take-up, while others were too slow, but in either case without clear laws, financial and legal issues soon took hold.

In response Palmer and her colleagues created a list of “model laws” against which US states are ranked each year. This week’s release of the 2013 report shows that more states than ever are coming around to her way of thinking. In 2011 Maine was the first state to enact almost all 20 laws; in 2012 the state of Washington joined them. She notes that “the trick with these laws is that we want to be effective but not heavy handed”.

So what of England? How close are we to the model? The coalition cannot be faulted for encouraging autonomy and a fast take-up: on the measures ranking “freedoms” England would receive almost full marks. The bigger problem is that our current system hits almost none of Palmer”s “quality control” requirements. And those are the ones really important for avoiding disasters.

What could England improve? First, increased transparency about the way new academies (i.e. free schools) are opened. The British Humanist Association recently won a two-year Freedom of Information battle just to get a list of applicant group names, school location and religious affiliation, and the DfE still are considering using the power of veto to over-ride the ruling – all over a list of names. In the best US States there is complete transparency of the entire application process (For instance, Maine’s list is published online), and rightly so given the schools are taxpayer-financed.

There could also be clearer processes for renewing or revoking academy “agreements” as the current rules are too patchy. Campaign groups are already complaining that Roke Primary School is being forced to close (or, more likely, be taken over by an academy group) while schools with similar performance records which already operate as academies are being allowed to limp on. Perhaps this is because the government does not want to admit that academies are not a panacea; possibly it is because of finance — in the US charters have often been allowed to stay open far longer than they should because financial contracts they signed meant closing would involve prohibitive financial penalties. Finally there needs to be clearer guidance around the use of for-profit organisations, and an ability for the public to “follow the pound” as Margaret Hodge recently suggested.

The coalition government may have boosted the quasi-privatisation agenda without too much fuss, but the US's experience should be a serious warning. If its history is anything to go by, there is a need for much more transparency in the opening and closing processes of schools and for tighter financial accountability. Without both of those it’s all-too-likely that the free schools program will end in tears. Or a courtroom.

Photograph: Getty Images

Laura McInerney taught in East London for six years and is now studying on a Fulbright scholarship at the University of Missouri. She also works as Policy Partner at LKMCo.

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An unmatched font of knowledge

Edinburgh’s global reputation as a knowledge economy is rooted in the performance and international outlook of its four universities.

As sociologist-turned US Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan recognised when asked how to create a world-class city, a strong academic offering is pivotal to any forward-looking, ambitious city. “Build a university,” he said, “and wait 200 years.” He recognised the long-term return such an investment can deliver; how a renowned academic institution can help attract the world. However, in today’s increasingly globalised higher education sector, world-class universities no longer rely on the world coming to come to them – their outlook is increasingly international.

Boasting four world-class universities, Edinburgh not only attracts and retains students from around the world, but also increasingly exports its own distinctively Scottish brand of academic excellence. In fact, 53.9% of the city’s working age population is educated to degree level.

In the most recent QS World University Rankings, the University of Edinburgh was named as the 21st best university in the world, reflecting its reputation for research and teaching. It’s a fact reflected in the latest UK Research Exercise Framework (REF), conducted in 2014, which judged 96% of its academic departments to be producing world-leading research.

Innovation engine

Measured across the UK, annual Gross Value Added (GVA) by University of Edinburgh start-ups contributes more than £164m to the UK economy. In fact, of 262 companies to emerge from the university since the 1960s, 81% remain active today, employing more than 2,700 staff globally. That performance places the University of Edinburgh ahead of institutions such as MIT in terms of the number of start-ups it generates; an innovation hothouse that underlines why one in four graduates remain in Edinburgh and why blue chip brands such as Amazon, IBM and Microsoft all have R&D facilities in the city.

One such spin out making its mark is PureLiFi, founded by Professor Harald Haas to commercialise his groundbreaking research on data transmission using the visible light spectrum. With data transfer speeds 10,000 times faster than radio waves, LiFi not only enables bandwidths of 1 Gigabit/sec but is also far more secure.

Edinburgh’s universities play a pivotal role in the local economy. Through its core operations, knowledge transfer activities and world-class research the University generated £4.9bn in GVA and 44,500 jobs globally, when accounting for international alumni.

With £1.4bn earmarked for estate development over the next 10 years, the University of Edinburgh remains the city’s largest property developer. Its extensive programme of investment includes the soon-to-open Higgs Centre for Innovation. A partnership with the UK Astronomy Technology Centre, the new centre will open next year and will supply business incubation support for potential big data and space technology applications, enabling start-ups to realise the commercial potential of applied research in subjects such as particle physics.

It’s a story of innovation that is mirrored across Edinburgh’s academic landscape. Each university has carved its own areas of academic excellence and research expertise, such as the University of Edinburgh’s renowned School of Informatics, ranked among the world’s elite institutions for Computer Science. 

The future of energy

Research conducted into the economic impact of Heriot-Watt University demonstrated that it generates £278m in annual GVA for the Scottish economy and directly supports more than 6,000 jobs.

Set in 380-acres of picturesque parkland, Heriot-Watt University incorporates the Edinburgh Research Park, the first science park of its kind in the UK and now home to more than 40 companies.

Consistently ranked in the top 25% of UK universities, Heriot-Watt University enjoys an increasingly international reputation underpinned by a strong track record in research. 82% of the institution’s research is considered world-class (REF) – a fact reflected in a record breaking year for the university, attracting £40.6m in research funding in 2015. With an expanding campus in Dubai and last year’s opening of a £35m campus in Malaysia, Heriot-Watt is now among the UK’s top five universities in terms of international presence and numbers of international students.

"In 2015, Heriot-Watt University was ranked 34th overall in the QS ‘Top 50 under 50’ world rankings." 

Its established strengths in industry-related research will be further boosted with the imminent opening of the £20m Lyell Centre. It will become the Scottish headquarters of the British Geological Survey, and research will focus on global issues such as energy supply, environmental impact and climate change. As well as providing laboratory facilities, the new centre will feature a 50,000 litre climate change research aquarium, the UK Natural Environment Research Council Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) in Oil and Gas, and the Shell Centre for Exploration Geoscience.

International appeal

An increasingly global outlook, supported by a bold international strategy, is helping to drive Edinburgh Napier University’s growth. The university now has more than 4,500 students studying its overseas programmes, through partnerships with institutions in Hong Kong, Singapore, China, Sri Lanka and India.

Edinburgh Napier has been present in Hong Kong for more than 20 years and its impact grows year-on-year. Already the UK’s largest higher education provider in the territory, more than 1,500 students graduated in 2015 alone.

In terms of world-leading research, Edinburgh Napier continues to make its mark, with the REF judging 54% of its research to be either world-class or internationally excellent in 2014. The assessment singled out particular strengths in Earth Systems and Environmental Sciences, where it was rated the top UK modern university for research impact. Taking into account research, knowledge exchange, as well as student and staff spending, Edinburgh Napier University generates in excess of £201.9m GVA and supports 2,897 jobs in the city economy.

On the south-east side of Edinburgh, Queen Margaret University is Scotland’s first university to have an on-campus Business Gateway, highlighting the emphasis placed on business creation and innovation.

QMU moved up 49 places overall in the 2014 REF, taking it to 80th place in The Times’ rankings for research excellence in the UK. The Framework scored 58% of Queen Margaret’s research as either world-leading or internationally excellent, especially in relation to Speech and Language Sciences, where the University is ranked 2nd in the UK.

In terms of its international appeal, one in five of Queen Margaret’s students now comes from outside the EU, and it is also expanding its overseas programme offer, which already sees courses delivered in Greece, India, Nepal, Saudi Arabia and Singapore.

With 820 years of collective academic excellence to export to the world, Edinburgh enjoys a truly privileged position in the evolving story of academic globalisation and the commercialisation of world-class research and innovation. If he were still around today, Senator Moynihan would no doubt agree – a world-class city indeed.

For further information www.investinedinburgh.com