Exporting academies won’t benefit English children

You have to hand it to the coalition; it would appear that nothing will deflect ministers from their pet plan to make money from schools. It is less than a month since David Cameron’s plan to allow English academies and free schools to sell places to overseas students was leaked then promptly disowned largely due to the negative coverage that followed. The vision of queue jumping foreign children, in areas where there aren’t enough places for local families, led to a swift U turn.

But the “education export strategy” is anything but dead in the water. It has just popped up again in a new form. Instead of international pupils coming here, academy chains will go to them, freshly minted with a new British “kitemark”, able to charge fees and ready to take their place in the global market.

There is a certain logic to the plan if you believe, as the coalition clearly does, that education is a product to be bought and sold. The global education market is now worth around $4.5 trillion dollars, second only to the market in healthcare. All over the world, education providers and governments are scrambling to grab a share of this particular goldmine either by importing overseas students to domestic universities, by cashing in on the massive “edtech” market, or by running global chains of schools. A particularly English sideline has been to establish branches of elite pubic schools overseas. – Harrow, Wellington and Dulwich College have all opened schools abroad. It is a combination of these last two approaches the government has latched onto, for obvious reasons.

The development of the edu-business at home is sluggish. The public remains stubbornly resistant to the idea of “for profit” schools. All academies and free schools, and indeed most private schools, currently have charitable status, which the government’s education export policy document points out “does not lend itself to rapid growth”. Lack of affordable, available sites, particularly in urban areas, is making the idea of expansion of existing academies and free school chains difficult. So what better way to give the market a fillip than by offering an affordable version of the private sector blazers and boaters, maybe with a bit of academy military discipline thrown in, to aspirant parents in the Far and Middle East, Central and Southern America.

But this is not a risk free plan from the point of view of the domestic pupils for whose benefit academies and free schools were originally set up. The chains may be currently not for profit, but as they become more heavily subsidized by revenue from overseas, inevitably saving the British government money, how long would it be before fees and for profit motive start to infiltrate the domestic market?

The Institute of Education’s Professor Stephen Ball has been tracking the development of the global education business for several decades. He points out this market tends to be dominated by a few big players – multi national companies who gradually hoover up smaller providers and individual schools in the host countries.

Rapid expansion and the drive for profitability often lead to a corporate culture and standardization in terms of teaching, learning and the curriculum, which sits uneasily with the coalition rhetoric about autonomy and diversity. Cost cutting also frequently follows, which often plays out in high pupil teacher ratios. In extreme cases the companies collapse, leaving pupils teachers and parents high and dry. “It is no different to any other business. Rapid expansion can be managed successfully but it can also impact on quality or lead to failure.” says Ball.

The recent collapse of the Swedish free school chain JB Education set alarm bells ringing about the once lauded Nordic model of for profit chains. And concerns have also been aired in England about the rapid expansion of some existing academy chains like the Academies Enterprise Trust which runs over 60 schools but has been barred from taking on any more by the DFE.

But perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the development of the global edu- business is the way in which it is starting to mimic the worst aspects of the English school system with a steep hierarchy in status, fees and educational offer. At the top end is the glossy elite sector offering a costly English public school education, then come the big commercial giants like GEMS, the largest for profit school chain in the world, which includes everything the faux public school model to low cost schools catering for up to 8000 children in poorer communities, and at the bottom end the online virtual schools, often teacher free, adopted by some of the American charter schools chains.

No doubt the English academies would find their place in this complex new world, but it would be a long way from their original mission to offer a new start and fresh leadership to pupils in the most disadvantaged English communities., and an unnecessary distraction from the challenges many still face at home.

This article first appeared in the Guardian here





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