First the NHS, now our education system. James O’Shaughnessy, the freshly-departed Head of Policy at No 10, who himself is starting up an education business, last week published a report for Policy Exchange arguing private companies should be allowed to run chains of schools for profit. It’s just the latest in a line of reports from Conservative think tanks making the case for introducing commercial motive into the running of our schools, an agenda that Michael Gove is known to be privately supportive of and which may well feature in the next Conservative manifesto.
Proponents of for-profit schools – wary of being accused of being ideologues – like to give their arguments the dispassionate gloss by saying the evidence stacks up in their favour. But as this IPPR report so conclusively showed, there’s absolutely no evidence to suggest that introducing for-profit improves results, and evidence to suggest that it can have detrimental effects.
As a governor of my local primary school, which is on a fast-improvement journey, it’s easy to see why this is. You don’t need structural reform to free up schools to improve. It’s a commonly-peddled myth that our schools are prevented from making innovative reforms to teaching and learning by over-bureaucratic local authority management. This is utter rubbish: according to the OECD, our school system is one of the most devolved in the world in terms of the freedoms schools have over their own budgets, how they structure teaching and learning in the classroom and how they are run.
As my research has shown, by far and away the most important factor in determining how schools do for their children is the quality of teaching in the classroom (not exactly rocket science). And the best way to improve quality of teaching in the short term is to improve the quality of leadership within the school. I’ve seen first hand the immense difference this makes. While playing around with school structures – creating a new academy or free school – may help bring in high quality leadership to help turn a failing school around, there are plenty of cases where turning a school into an academy has had no effect at all. And, as in our case, even more cases where schools have been turned around quickly because of changes in leadership that have nothing to do with whether or not a school is an academy.
This is not to say structural reform has no place in the system, but the dangers of over-egging it to be the panacea for school improvement are immense. It detracts from rather than focus minds on the issues that really matter: teacher and leadership quality. Extending the argument to make the case for free schools is a dangerous ideological move that could end up with money that should be spent on improving classroom environments instead lining the pockets of for-profit companies. It speaks volumes that Conservative thinking is going into ideas like this rather than the challenges our education system needs to grapple with to ensure it remains world-class, such as ensuring there is a decent vocational offer for young people via apprenticeships and a TeccBacc, and preparing young people for the modern world of work, so different to the jobs market Michael Gove and his colleagues entered decades ago.