Capital and privatised schools

This is part three of my series of blogs which presents a critique of the privatisation of schools in England. In the first part I argued how the Education Reform Act (1988) created, effectively, a voucher plan for schools, a market was created, with per-pupil funding and specification of what schools as private operators would provide as a service, through the introduction of a national curriculum and national assessments. Following this, and having shown how the market was created, in the second part I use Marx’s theory of political economy to show the creation of knowledge commodities. My purpose for introducing the idea of commodity is to show how schools have become capitalist enterprises, outside of the state, and in turn how this has an impact on teachers’ working conditions, pay and access to quality continuing professional development. Overall, in this series of posts, I want to show how the privatised state education system undermines the professional status of teachers. My discussion of teachers’ work will come in the next blog. In this blog, I want to concentrate on the idea of capital. My overall argument is that teachers’ working conditions, how capital works in market-oriented enterprises and the production and provision of commodities are interlinked components of privatisation.

So, in this post my emphasis is on capital in the context of schools. What I will show here, drawing on the work of Marx is that schools, or a chain of schools operating within a marketized system has but one option and that is to accumulate capital. But before sketching out that argument, I should explain the idea of capital.

What is capital?

The Oxford English Dictionary presents an interesting etymology. The first recorded use of capital is c1225 as relating to the head, something at-the-top, to represent the principal or chief or important person. It is interesting that these early references to the use of the term capital in English are representative of power and capacity to coerce subordinates. In the sixteenth century capital broadened its meaning to include financial assets and thereby implying a recognition of the close relationship of money and power. In the nineteenth century, it was to represent profit, advantage and power. The contemporary term, interestingly integrates two aspects, a financial component and power.

The classical political economists Adam Smith and David Ricardo, referred to capital but were not specific about its meaning or indeed its nature. While they both saw capital as related to production of commodities and so to labour value, but apart from recognising that individuals could accumulate capital, they did not give it further consideration. Marx, however, was more precise about what capital was, in the sense of its social function and dynamic nature. Marx, argued that capital could be money, commodities or the means of production. But it had to be in circulation, either money being used to buy commodities and subsequently sell them or, as commodities being sold to buy other commodities. Inherently within the notion of capital is exchange of commodities and money. Like Smith and Ricardo, Marx relates capital to production and the cost of labour. Therefore, within capital, there is a labour cost, since circulation involves commodities. The relationship becomes important when I discuss teachers’ pay and conditions in the next blog but for now I will park the idea here.

Capital provides the means to produce commodities and to buy labour to enable this process. In my previous post I presented an analysis of the commodification of knowledge. The National Curriculum and the existence of national assessment codify knowledge commodities. The work of a school is the transfer of knowledge commodities to students[1]. The notional contract between the student and the school is to provide a minimum addition of knowledge commodity to the child’s level of knowledge on entering the school. If the school does not fulfil its side of the contract the student can go to another school. Or, if the school is not fulfilling its notional contractual requirements, the government can ask another organisation to take responsibility.

If schools are seen as producers or as service providers in the delivery of knowledge commodities in a market, then the role of the leadership becomes that of capitalist. They have to deploy capital for the provision of the service, in other words they have to employ teachers and support staff and maintain the school buildings and market the school. But they also have to accumulate capital to expand and to maintain a competitive edge in the market.

Marx showed that necessity of capitalists to incessantly increase capital. Chapter 25 of Capital Volume 1 sets out a general theory of capital accumulation. In one sense the accumulation of capital might be seen in terms of a thirst for wealth, that no matter how wealthy you are that thirst cannot be quenched. This was the classical political economist view of capital accumulation posited by Smith and Ricardo. For Marx, with a view of capital as dynamic and as money and commodity in circulation, capital accumulation is conceptually richer. The need for accumulation is driven by the need to respond to competition, who themselves will be engaged in capital accumulation, and one significant form of capital accumulation is through expansion in order to try and dominate the market. In Marx’s day that would mean acquiring more factories. In terms of schools, it means that the capitalist school leader necessarily is driven to run more schools. It is this principle that largely underpins the growth of a Multi Academy Trust.

The number of Multi Academy Trusts has grown from 391 in 2011 to 846 by July 2015 (Hill, 2015). The Harris Federation of South London Schools and Ark Schools are two large and established academy chains. I will look at the growth of each of these in more depth. The Harris Federation has its beginnings under the Thatcher government and just after the 1988 Education Reform Act. Phillip Harris, who amassed wealth retailing carpet and furniture, was asked by Margaret Thatcher to take over Sylvan School in Crystal Palace and to establish a City Technology College (CTC) (Graham, 2013). The Harris Federation now runs 41 primary and secondary schools. It is a private limited company by guarantee, incorporated in 2007, with three subsidiaries: Harris Academies Projects Limited, HCTC Enterprises Limited and Harris Professional Services Limited. It held net assets of £343,416,000 in 2015 which has grown from £86,437,000 in 2008 when it ran 6 schools.

Ark Schools was established in 2004 and now runs 31 schools with net assets[2] of £369,539,000 (2015) which has grown from one school in 2006, its net assets were £2,292,000. Ark Schools is part of a group of operations Ark UK Programmes Limited, Ark South Africa Limited, Ark Zimbabwe Trust, Ark Uganda, Ark India and Absolute Return for Kids US, Inc (Ark US). Collectively these hold net assets of £19,389,000 and publish separate accounts to Ark Schools to satisfy the funding agreement with the Department for Education.

The growth of these and other Multi Academy Trusts has been largely achieved through the transfer of state-owned assets to these private companies. However, the accumulation of capital is usually a result of the surplus value generated by the workforce. That is the difference between the exchange value of the commodity (or service provided) and the necessary labour cost i.e. that which the worker needs to live on. It is not clear the extent to which capital is being accumulated by the growing Multi Academy Trusts since their growth, as I have said, is largely through the transfer of capital from the state. However, as I will show in the next blog the undermining of teachers’ pay and conditions can be attributed to the privatisation process. And as predicted by Marx, the exploitation of workers contributes to capital accumulation. In fact the central thesis of the three volumes of Capital is that if the freemarket and its invisible hand is allowed to prevail, capital accumulates and workers become increasingly exploited. I am applying the same thesis in the context of the privatisation of schools. First by showing that there is evidence for privatisation, second by showing that schools now involve knowledge commodities and third by showing, in this blog, the incessant and inherent need for capital accumulation within a capitalist system.

In the next blog, I look at how teachers’ pay and conditions become undermined in these conditions of privatisation. And how this has an impact on teachers’ access to continuing professional development and professionalism and professional standing.

Notes

[1] I appreciate how hard teachers work in providing a rich and fulfilling experience at school, as well as in providing pastoral support. My analysis here is abstracted to capital, commodity and labour.

[2] I accept that net assets are not equivalent to capital, but I am assuming that to illustrate capital accumulation these values for net assets are proportional to capital. The growth in net assets therefore indicates the extent of capital accumulation.

References

Graham, N. (2013, April 26). CarpetRight’s Lord Harris reflects on a lifetime in the rug trade. Financial Times. London.

Hill. (2015, August 31). The rise and rise of multi-academy trusts – latest DfE data. Retrieved from https://roberthilleducationblog.com/2015/08/31/the-rise-and-rise-of-multi-academy-trusts-latest-dfe-data/

The commodification of knowledge in schools

Stephen Ball’s well-known lecture on the commodification of education (Ball, 2004), publicised – to some degree – academic discourse on the nature of the privatisation of state schools in  England. Ball focussed on the establishment of a quasi market through the introduction of parental choice. I, on the other hand, want to consider here privatisation through the commodification of knowledge. The question I address is: can knowledge, in the context of compulsory education, be viewed as a commodity? And how does this impact on schools’ cultures and teachers’ pay, conditions and access to continuing professional development. Though the second question I will deal with in a subsequent blog. This also follows my previous blog Schools in England were privatised in 1988.

I will start by explaining what I mean by a ‘commodity’ in a more general sense. I will then go on to show that knowledge as a result of education policy has become a commodity.

The original meaning of commodity – that is before modern times – derived from Latin via French was, was ‘convenience’ or ‘of use to mankind’. In modern usage its meaning has developed to connote tangible items but of worth or of value. The attachment of value is important and recognised by classical political economists. As David Ricardo explained: “Possessing utility, commodities derive their exchangeable value from two sources: from their scarcity, and from the quantity of labour required to obtain them” (Ricardo, 1817, p. 1). Importantly, Ricardo links a commodity’s value to demand, use and scarcity, he also links value to the labour invested in the production of the commodity. Adam Smith developed this idea: “The value of any commodity, therefore, to the person who possesses it, and who means not to use or consume it himself, but to exchange it for other commodities, is equal to the quantity of labour which it enables him to purchase or command. Labour therefore, is the real measure of the exchangeable value of all commodities” (Smith, 1852, p. 13).

The relationship between commodity and labour value is important in explaining how the privatisation of education has led to the increased workload and intensity of work and the reduction in pay and conditions. However, I don’t intend to develop that in this blog, although, it is important to remind the reader that my overall aim in this series of blogs is to show how the privatisation of education, that began with the Education Reform Act (1988), led to the undermining of teachers’ pay and conditions and reduced access to quality professional development.

So far my definitions of commodity suggest tangibility: a product or a precious metal. Marx however, expanding on Smith and Ricardo’s conceptions of commodity provides a less material but metaphysical conception:

A commodity is, in the first place, an object outside us, a thing that by its properties satisfies human wants of some sort or another. The nature of such wants, whether, for instance, they spring from the stomach or from fancy, makes no difference (Marx, 1981).

A commodity, in this respect, loses physical form and and can be an idea, a concept or knowledge. Ricardo and Smith conceptualise commodities as physical items that are exchanged in physical acts. Marx, in contrast, develops the social and psychological significance of commodity and exchange. And of course this leads to social and power relations around relative wealth and exchange.

Before considering the commodification of knowledge in the privatisation of schools. It is worth pointing out that the commodification of knowledge is not something that began as part of education policy in that last 30 to 40 years, it goes back at least a 100 years. Rose (2010) in his monumental history of The intellectual life of the British working classes suggests a transition between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. For the working class in the nineteenth century the literary canon was accessible to the poorest in society, but in the twentieth century autodidacts found “…the cultural goalposts had moved, that a new canon of deliberately difficult literature had been called into existence. The inaccessibility of modernism in effect rendered the common reader illiterate once again, and preserved a body of culture as the exclusive property of coterie” (p. 394). Rose goes on to observe that “Like other goods, the market value of knowledge increases with scarcity…the exchange value of knowledge can be enhanced by creating artificial scarcities, monopolies, or oligopolies, through such devices as copyright, encryption, and professional accreditation” (ibid.) [1]. And so needs and wants have been created in respect to culture and knowledge as an economic imperative.

If you now relate this to my previous blog on the freemarket and the Education Reform Act (1988) (ERA), the introduction of Local Management of Schools (LMS) confers on education the production and sale of knowledge commodities. Knowledge commodities are identified by introducing performance indicators based on assessments. The introduction of the National Curriculum and four Key Stages, two at primary and two at secondary,  provided a mechanism through which age-specific and discipline-oriented knowledge could be specified. This is exemplified in the following extract from the original National Curriculum for England and Wales. It specifies the knowledge required by pupils to achieve a certain level in a particular aspect of mathematics. End of Key Stage tests were introduced through the 1990s, primarily in English and mathematics. As a result, throughout a child’s school life, there was a state mechanism of quantifying the acquisition of knowledge.

nc-1989-maths-at2-level-4
An extract from the 1989 National Curriculum for mathematics. Attainment target 2 (AT2) number, level 4 (DES/WO, 1989)

At the end of Key Stage 4, the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GSCE) was introduced to replace the O level (General Certificate of Education, GCE) and Certificate of Secondary Education (CSE) in 1988. This qualification continues to be taken by the majority of students at age 15 or 16 years old. The examination specification provides a detailed specification of ‘knowledge’ for a wide range of subjects. Although reforms in 2010 brought in by the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Coalition Government reduced the content of the original National Curriculum, the specifications of GCSE examinations continue to provide the codification knowledge at secondary level. The assessments in primary schools fulfil the same function there.

Having identified the way in which knowledge has been specified, quantified and codified in schools, I will now take this back to the concept of commodity and value, and relate this to mechanisms of marketization introduced with ERA. Ricardo, Smith and Marx related commodity implicitly to exchange value, not only must the commodity be identifiable as a tangible object or as codified knowledge, as I have just shown, it is necessary that there is some exchange for other commodities or for money. ERA and LMS provided the possibility of exchange through the introduction of formula funding and performance indicators (see previous blog). The establishment of a voucher scheme is equivalent to individual pupils buying knowledge commodities. Although this is not fully a freemarket system, because the exercise of choice is limited and there is no direct exchange of money between consumer and service provider (i.e. the school), the system is no longer a public provision but is marketized. I will show in a subsequent blog that this liberation, while not fully subject to the invisible hand [2], is sufficiently marketised to have a profound impact on the working conditions of teachers and on the culture of schools. Essentially, however constrained, schools are operating in a market selling a service which allows students access to knowledge commodities. The relationship is different to the school as public and community-owned service offering a broad education to the local community, in particular to their children.

If you want to get a sense of the pervasiveness of marketisation, consider the awareness of older pupils in their recognition that they are consumers within a marketised system.

Increasingly, the students are aware of their worth and I think that’s quite an interesting development…”I’m worth £2200 to this school,” is a phrase that I have known a Year 11 student say to me, as it was a bargaining [ploy] and there was one lady [to whom] I retorted that ..”£2200, You know, you’re not worth the trouble, go to Riverway, we don’t need £2200 of your trouble, or whatever it is” (Head of sixth form, FLightpath school, 1 July 1993: Gewirtz, Ball, & Bowe, 1995, p. 176 ).

What I have demonstrated in this blog is that knowledge can be viewed as a commodity. This has been done through policy, by codifying knowledge through national assessments and the national curriculum. the second component is the introduction of a market. The latter has been achieved by introducing per-pupil funding and performance indicators, which means payment is related to the provision of a service of specified knowledge delivery.

The subtle incremental policy changes have led to the privatisaton of schools, operating a cypto-voucher scheme for the purchase of quantities of officially defined knowledge. What I will show in the next blog is how the marketisation of schools leads to diminishing pay and working conditions of teachers.

Notes

  1. Theories of information supply and demand are presented by Goody (1968) and Douglas and Isherwood (1996). Goody describes how literacy was restricted in pre-print societies. Douglas and Isherwood conclude that there is a rational economic strategy to control access and exclude (both cited in Rose, 2010).
  2. The invisible hand was what Adam Smith referred to as the guiding forces of the freemarket.

References

Department for Education and Science/Welsh Office (DES/WO). (1989). Mathematics in the National Curriculum. London: HMSO.
Douglas, M., & Isherwood, B. C. (1996). The world of goods: towards an anthropology of consumption: with a new introduction (Rev. ed). London ; New York: Routledge.
Goody, J. (1968). Literacy in traditional societies. Cambridge: Cambridge U. P.
Gewirtz, S., Ball, S. J., & Bowe, R. (1995). Markets, choice, and equity in education. Buckingham ; Philadelphia: Open University Press.
Marx, K. (1981). Capital: a critique of political economy. (D. Fernbach, Trans.). London ; New York, N.Y: Penguin Books in association with New Left Review.
Ricardo, D. (1817). The principles of political economy and taxation. London: John Murray.
Rose, J. (2010). The intellectual life of the British working classes (2nd ed). New Haven: Yale University Press.
Smith, A. (1852). An inquiry into the nature and causes of the wealth of nations. London and Edinburgh: T Nelson and Sons.

Schools in England were privatised in 1988

The Education Reform Act 1998 (ERA) marked the point at which government started the process of privatising England’s state schools. Hywel Thomas, Emeritus Professor of Economics of Education, offered an analysis of ERA in 1990. Chapter 3 of the legislation set out profound changes to school financing, these measures are referred to as the  Local Management of Schools (LMS). The introduction of LMS provides the technological basis for privatisation.

Privatisation: public to private sector

It is important to be clear what privatisation means. The common definition is the process by which a public organisation is passed to the private sector. But it is necessary to clarify what I mean by public and private sector. To this aim I draw on Young’s (1986) definitions:

…the public sector [my emphasis] is used to describe those organisations created directly by government or by local authorities. Their status is usually statutory, or at least heavily dependent on the parent authority. They are financed mainly, and usually entirely, from public funds. Their work is directly linked to public policy, and their organisational structure is such that they are accountable to, and controlled by, ministers or local authority councillors  (Young, 1986, p. 236).

…’private sector‘ [my emphasis] is used as an umbrella term to describe what remains. It thus covers not just privately owned or publicly quoted companies, but interest groups, pressure groups, the voluntary sector, charities and the range of trusts, enterprise agencies and similar bodies that have emerged in recent years. In practice some of these organisations – like companies in which government holds part of the equity – straddle the boundary between the public and private sectors  (Young, 1986, p. 236).

 The voucher system – privatisation US style

A voucher system or voucher plan is a system through which parents are given vouchers in order that they can choose to spend them at any school, public or private, to buy education services for their children. The voucher plan effectively makes parents customers in an education marketplace where they can exercise choice.

Thomas (1990) argues that Local Management of Schools, as created by the Education Reform Act 1988, effectively created a voucher plan. While parents did not have full flexibility to exercise choice, for example, it was not possible to buy services outside the state system, it effectively created a market place with some choice. And turned schools into private-sector enterprises.

Thomas (1990) shows that LMS creates a voucher system through five legislative elements: financial delegation to schools; formula funding, open enrolment; staffing delegation and performance indicators. It is these five elements that recreate the state school as a private sector enterprise.

  1. Financial delegation schools were given day-to-day control over their budgets, where it was previously with the Local Education Authority. It is this move that subtly shifts the school into the private sector, according to Young’s definition above. It is grey, because the school does not entirely have control over its equity, but taken with the other four elements it clearly shifts from public to private. Headteachers and governors gained considerable power over their budgets, they had flexibility in respect to the selection of subcontractors for things such as maintenance and repairs. The essence is the locus of control shifted from public to private.
  2. Formula funding – this element marks the creation of a quasi-voucher system. Funding became pupil driven with 75 per cent of funds allocated by formula and the funds were required to be tied to a pupil. The stated aim was that ‘…schools have a clear incentive to attract and retain pupils’ (Circular 7/88, Para. 105) so emphasising competition and choice.
  3. Open enrolment – parents could move children to more popular schools and the funding went with them. This meant the creation of a quasi-market with schools effectively in competition.
  4. Staffing delegation – boards of governors gained the powers of appointment, suspension and dismissal. This links to future performance management as teachers become more accountable for pupils. Effectively teachers’ employment was connected to pupil performance. Even if, for the time being, the link was not overt, but mechanisms were created.
  5. Performance indicators – examination results and national assessment tests were used as quality indicators. There were two reasons for this: parents needed data to make choices and the government needed a mechanism for assessing the performance of a school through centralised accountability. The latter is an important separation from a shared public project to an outsourced private provision of education.

Final words

The Education Reform Act 1988 and the introduction of Local Management of Schools marked the beginnings of the privatisation of schools using the five elements set out above. This process has developed, almost seamlessly, regardless of political party, through to the present. Having identified the foundations of privatisation, in subsequent pieces of writing I plan to show how this has developed, to look at its impact on teachers’ workload and access to continuing professional development and to look at this in terms of wider political economy.

We should not kid ourselves that our schools remain in the public sector, they haven’t and ERA and LMS were the instruments that allowed it to happen.

References

Thomas, H. (1990). From Local Financial Management to Local Management of Schools. In M. Flude & M. Hammer (Eds.), The Education Reform Act, 1988: its origins and implications. London ; New York: Falmer Press.
Young, S. (1986). The nature of privatisation in Britain, 1979–85. West European Politics, 9(2), 235–252. https://doi.org/10.1080/01402388608424576

The College of Teaching: please don’t get the decorators in while the house is burning down

Congratulations to Dame Alison Peacock on her appointment as the first CEO of the College of Teaching. She has done an impressive job in championing assessment for learning in schools.

Broadly I am in favour of the formation of professional bodies, I believe they have the potential to support and develop the professional esteem of teachers.

However, I do have major reservations.

The problem is that since the 1970s there has been a steady move away from a publicly-owned state education system. While the discourse was being established back then, the process has gathered pace since 1988 with Local Management of Schools, then City Technology Colleges, then Academisation and PFI through the noughties. We are in the final stretch now, with the full-scale outsourcing of public and community education to academy chains and free schools. Schools are no longer public and community assets, they are now there for corporations to expand their capital through the acquisition of public assets and the state subsidy of their operations.

The impact of this on teachers is to intensify their work: longer working hours, reduced pay and worsening conditions. Karl Marx clearly explained how businesses accumulate capital by extracting surplus value from the workforce. And of course this is what teachers have experienced increasingly over the last ten or more years. First it was through the intensification of work under New Labour, then came restraint on wage growth, the undermining of collective bargaining and partial introduction of performance related pay. In a public or community-owned service this would not have happened.

The College of Teaching has been established with noblest of intentions and through the hard work of many committed people. I respect this unreservedly. I also respect the aims of the College to promote the best in professional development and promote the professional standing of teachers.

But none of this can be achieved unless schools and the education service are restored to being publicly and community owned, and accountable to their communities. If privatisation is allowed to continue, the teaching profession will be permanently atomised, subject to the vagaries of business and corporations, as we are increasingly seeing in Charter schools in the USA.

In the current economic climate corporate profit is hard to maintain, unless the business has an effective monopoly, like Google or Apple, or if you have a state subsidised-business, for example, Virgin Trains or G4S. There are powerful forces looking for business and our state education system is vulnerable to these.

I hope therefore that Alison Peacock and the Trustees of the College of Teaching recognise what is at stake here. All stakeholders in education, including headteachers, teachers, parents, governors, students, pupils and academics, need to organise and mobilise to to stop privatisation. I hope that the College of Teaching will soon make it clear that they are unequivocally opposed to moves to take education away from public ownership.

If the College of Teaching becomes fixated on professional development and ignores what is happening to our education system, then we will not have a profession to develop. And that is why I caution against getting stuck in to designing state-of-the-art decor when the house is being set alight by neoliberal arsonists.

 

 

A National Education Service is exactly what we need

Jeremy Corbyn has been floating the idea of a National Education Service since his Labour leadership campaign last year. The idea is breathtakingly simple and, in fact, blindingly obvious. The formation of a fully-funded, cradle-to-grave education service is the antithesis of the outsourced fragmented and anti-democratic reforms that have been creeping in since the 1970s. These are a few of my initial thoughts on the idea.

The National Education Service would provide a coordinated high-quality education service that supports learning from early years, through schools, sixth form, further education, undergraduate, postgraduate to adult and lifelong learning.

Schools would no longer be in a position where they are artificially competing with each other, but they would coordinate their strategies and maximise the use of their resources to better serve local communities and regions. It would mean a change from the current fetishisation of leadership to promote mutual and cooperatively run services, where teachers, parents, pupils and communities are recognised as stakeholders and have a greater say in how schools function.

At present there is a recruitment and retention crisis in teaching, a National Education Service would address this. Teachers would have more professional esteem and have greater control over their work, pay and conditions. The intensity of their work would be reduced by shifting the emphasis from centralised accountability to local democratic accountability.

While some examinations would continue to be important, this would not be at the expense of developing broader skills and more holistic school contributions such as the education of the community and emphasizing inclusivity, collaboration and partnership. Certainly it would move away from excessive compulsory testing for the purpose of accountability. It would mean a departure from a narrowly defined curriculum to one which reflects the needs of the community in which the school is located. The overall aim would be to equip students with the skills and capacities to contribute to society and help them develop as individuals. An overarching aim would be to put education at the heart of making society a more effective, fairer and more inclusive functioning democracy.

In further education, it would mean an end to degenerate privatisation, but provide a service that supports post-16 education, both academic and vocational – without necessarily drawing strong distinctions between the two. It would offer adult learning, whether it be developing skills, allowing people to develop their interests or in helping them prepare for advanced studies. University education would be freely available to all and include opportunity to blend academic and vocational studies. The Open University would be restored to a position where it can offer low-cost and flexible approaches to university-level education.

This is ambitious and the main objection is, simply, that we cannot afford it. My argument is that we cannot afford not to do this. Education is not having the impact on society that it should be, it can do more to improve the quality of outcomes for communities; developing skills and knowledge and helping people make a difference in their lives and to the people around them. While all society’s problems cannot be solved by schools, education can be at the heart of improvement, by equipping the next generation to be more active and effective participants in democracy.

In terms of cost, it has been estimated that the bank bail-out, with all things considered was as much as £1.2 trillion1. Much of this investment went toward the preservation of these institutions and the preservation of the wealth of their key stakeholders. The National Education Service would be fraction of this investment. Of the order of tens of billions each year. Investment that would go directly into the economy but at the same time would result in considerable growth. If it were done carefully this kind of investment would have little impact on the deficit but would have considerable economic and social benefits2.

1. https://soundcloud.com/weeklyeconomicspodcast/endofhistory  Episode 5, The End of History. Economist James Meadway citing IMF estimates

2.  I discuss the economics of school spending in the following blog post: https://sw10014.wordpress.com/2016/02/24/how-much-should-we-spend-on-schools-part-1/

I published this post on the Cambridge Area Momentum site previously

Co-operative schools: an answer to forced academization?

I would like to thank Mark Merrywest, Eastern Region Director of the Co-operative Schools Network for his contribution to this post

I became interested in co-operative schools after speaking to a colleague from the Educational Leadership and School Improvement academic group in the Faculty of Education here in Cambridge. I mentioned I had been writing about my experience of teaching in a school in special measures in North East Lincolnshire. I explained my interest in shared leadership, stakeholder and community participation and governance. He alerted to me to the existence of a growing movement of co-operative schools. It is estimated that there are approximately 850 primary and secondary co-operative schools in England, with approximately 50 of these being academies[1].  Yet they do not get much attention from the media and Government. Although, Warwick Mansell wrote about co-operative schools in The Guardian in 2011, and on the Government website there is a document examining the potential of mutuals in public services. The co-operative school model was originally envisaged as an alternative to academization with an overarching foundation trust being formed to support larger groups of schools. With hindsight many schools joined these groups with the intention of staving off forced academization and some trusts demonstrate different levels of co-operation than others. Protection from forced change has not turned out to be possible, however the model is still sound with many high performing trusts operating very successfully around the country.

My purpose for writing this post is to argue that co-operative schools present a viable solution to address some of the fundamental issues in educational reform. I want to promote some discussion, provide links to resources and ideas, and introduce what I hope to be a line of future research in collaboration with schools and other organisations. But before going further, for those not familiar with the principles of mutuals and co-operatives, it is worth watch the following. If you are more familiar, then read on.

I have a long-term (albeit passing) interest in mutualization. As a result of working in  a range of sectors, I have long thought about how best to empower professionals within an organisation. This has led me to believe that professional empowerment and quality of service is more likely when professionals and users are stakeholders within that organisation.

It is worth explaining how my interest in school organisation, leadership and culture relates to my research: research concerned with teaching and learning mathematics. There has been something of a tradition, in mathematics education research, to focus on activities, tasks, and learning acts, dialogue and behaviours. The classroom is all too frequently viewed in isolation to the school and to policy. My first major piece of research was concerned with the professional development (PD) of secondary mathematics teachers (Watson, 2014). I concluded that PD is not sustained unless its aims are consistent with the school culture. PD can facilitate teacher innovation by empowering teachers to investigate and evaluate alternative approaches in their classrooms. But unless there is a culture of innovation, collegiality and collaborative autonomy the effects of PD are not sustained. This research in four mathematics departments, over two terms, illustrated how hierarchical and managerial approaches undermine the long-term impact of PD. It made me realise that effective PD is inseparable from school organisation and culture.

The structure of a co-operative school facilitates democratic input, not only from pupils, staff and leaders, but also the wider community, especially parents. My eight years teaching in North East Lincolnshire, and latterly Lincolnshire, confirmed to me that community involvement is vital (see my blog post here). I accept that this is not easy, the community can be reluctant and may feel that they are not equipped to participate, but it is necessary that schools work toward supporting community involvement. A co-operative approach is more likely to contribute to this as it is a core and fundamental value.

Education Excellence (and Mutuals) Everywhere

My interest in mutualization of schools and co-operative education was rekindled recently by the publication of the Government’s White Paper, Education Excellence Everywhere . It occurred to me that the White Paper, should it become policy, provides an opportunity to develop co-operative education further, since the overall approach may address many of the issues that schools face at present.

In the White Paper, Government proposes to academize all schools in England by 2022. This is in spite of limited evidence that academies perform any better than Local Authority (LA) schools. This also removes the possibility of schools having a foundation status [2] which is the legal status of  most existing co-operative schools. Forced academization has not received a warm reception, except from stalwart enthusiasts of Tory school reforms. People from across the political divide have objected to the diminished role of the LA and reduction in the role of parent governors. The White Paper has also been criticised for not addressing immediate difficulties. Chief amongst headteachers’ current concerns is recruitment and retention, especially in shortage subjects. Teachers’ morale is low, according to a recent National Union of Teachers (NUT) survey, over fifty per cent of teachers want to leave the profession. The sources of dissatisfaction are ascribed to excessive workload.

Interestingly, the opposition are vocally supportive of co-operatives. John McDonnell, the Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, wants more mutuals and co-operatives in the public and private sector. It is also worth noting, the previous Coalition Government has also backed a mutual approach to the public sector.

The thorny issue of parents and community

The White Paper seeks to abandon the requirement for parental governors. There has been something of a protest over this and the diminished role of voluntary governors, as the preferred model moves towards an advisory board of individuals with ‘specialist skills’. In response to protests, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Schools, Lord Nash, presented a softened position.

High quality governance and leadership is especi ally important as we devolve more power from local and national government to schools – and it is critical to our vision of an autonomous school-led system. We want schools to be able to make the decisions about what is right for them – and this includes the expertise and experience that they need on their governing board. That is why we were clear in the White Paper that those on governing boards should be those with the right mix of skills to help improve schools and support leaders and not people chosen simply on the grounds that they represent one particular group, be that parents, the Local Authority or staff (Nash, 2016).

Even in this, Lord Nash, sees governance in terms of the maximisation of outputs rather than in terms of stakeholder participation. For further discussion on Lord Nash’s views on parent governors, see Bennett (2016).

However, it is fundamental that schools fully engage with the communities which they serve. Even if this is not straightforward.

Autonomy + accountability = deprofessionalisation

Underpinning the White Paper’s academization plan is an assumption that school autonomy leads to more effective education. This principle goes back to the 2010 White Paper, The Importance of Teaching. While this sounds appealing, autonomy does not generally extend to teachers. As Glatter (2012) observes:

… autonomy is a subtle and relative concept, varying in nature and degree by context, activity (such as curriculum, assessment, resource management) and level. For example an earlier international study of 11 countries found that when school systems were decentralized institutional leaders tended to enjoy more autonomy but the impact on teaching and support staff was questionable as concerns about their job security increased … (Glatter, 2012, p. 565).

The international study that Glatter refers to, suggests that changes to teachers’ contracts limits practitioner autonomy within a decentralised system. I argue further that accountability contributes to limitations in the way in which teachers can act autonomously. This is supported by Mausethagen (2013), who from a review of research, found that the overall impact of accountability, i.e. a focus on examination results, reduced the relationship-oriented aspects of a teacher’s practice. There was a narrowing of focus.

My own experience, as a teacher, is that accountability leads to a results-driven culture, where the emphasis is on examination outcomes. These narrow definitions of success are concomitant with hierarchical and managerial cultures: a mechanism with which success in limited goals is achieved. School and headteacher autonomy can contribute to this, as borne out by research in the Netherlands (Noordegraaf & De Wit, 2012).

Education Excellence Everywhere and its predecessor The Importance of Teaching talk in terms of outcomes rather than processes. Outputs and  outcomes become too narrow, focussing on examination results, rather than young peoples’ broader successes and achievements. The policy intention was to give headteachers and teachers the freedom to use whatever approach they feel is necessary. This was Michael Gove’s promise of letting teachers teach. However, the consequence of this, combined with intense and narrow accountability, leads to diminished professional judgement. The organisational mission – which might be stated in terms of a broad educationally moral purpose – in reality, becomes reduced to delivery of results. Performance management is confined to narrow outcomes. In the most extreme examples, there is high staff-turnover, low staff morale and high levels of stress. It is not unsurprising that since the introduction of policy promoting school autonomy, there have been increased difficulties in recruitment and retention and professional dissatisfaction. It is also unsurprising the response Nick Gibb received at the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) conference:

Not all schools and academies operate a managerial culture of compliance and there are many examples where academies afford teachers professional autonomy. There are many excellent headteachers that retain a school mission that is holistic and responsive to the needs of the community it serves. They continue to ensure that teachers retain their professionalism and promote collegiality. From my own experience and from my research, it is in the struggling school, the school in tough circumstances, the school where examination results are below expectations where problems arise. It might be inexperienced leadership and through desperation, that compliance cultures emerge and a regime of fear and performativity appears. It can also arise as a result of limiting headteachers’ professional autonomy. With the Government’s preference for Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs), a chain of centrally managed schools, the headteacher can lose their professional autonomy. They become subordinate to a MAT executive headteacher or CEO.

What can a co-operative education offer?

So how does a co-operative education offer a different approach should forced academization become a reality? Since their conception in the mid 19thCentury co-operatives have been created to meet similar needs to those we are facing with schools today. Leaving aside the detailed area of co-operative management and learning, co-operative education can offer a better way of working together. The co-operative values and principles provide a core basis for a joint vision and way of working that enables groups of like-minded schools to create more value than the sum of their parts. The key elements for school structure in particular are:

Voluntary and Open membership – There is much speculation in the press regarding small and rural schools not being ‘wanted’ by larger academy groups. Co-operatives should be open to membership from any group or schools who share the key values and principles of co-operation.

Equality and Equity – schools need the ability to work together on an equal footing without the need for one of their number to take a lead. Their joint mission and collaborative support will ensure that all will succeed. This actually encourages a ‘bottom-up’ way of working from an operations management perspective.

Member economic participation – through the creation of a jointly owned mutual operation, members contribute to and democratically control the capital of their co-operative. This means that no one school or individual can benefit from any surplus, which is kept for the benefit of all. Services and improvement initiatives can be traded with other groups, particularly other co-operatives.

Democratic Member control – within the defined framework from the Department for Education, there are large elements of control which can be delegated to the individual schools. This is at the core of co-operative values and should always be a major part of co-operative education. Membership can stretch to all stakeholders including the parents and the local community.

Autonomy and Independence – co-operatives work hard to maintain the autonomy and independence of their individual parts which still maintain their link to the bigger picture. This key principle is vital within a school system setup to default to a central ‘top-down’ model.

Co-operative schools and academies under the wider banner of co-operative education are still accountable to the same performance measures e.g. Ofsted and test results, as any other group. The approach internal approach taken to meet these external measures however is encouraged to be fundamentally different.

The key to any co-operative is to buy in to the vision and ethos as the partnership only works if everyone participates. These principles above are not simply a-nice-to-have or a utopian view, they are key principles outlined and used by co-operatives internationally. Foundation and academy trusts adopting this approach, should they wish, can clearly benefit from a well defined co-operative business model and shared vision.

Possible research questions

I conclude this post by considering some possible research questions. I would be keen to hear from individuals, groups or organisations interested in developing a research programme along these lines.

  • To what extent does accountability act as a barrier to implementing a mutual organisational model?
  • How do co-operative schools ensure that stakeholders participate (for example, parents in low socio-economic contexts)?
  • What are the processes and experiences of a school transitioning to a mutual model?

Further information

There are co-operative groups across the country offering support, information, advice and guidance for schools who may wish to use a co-operative approach.  Further information can be found on the websites below.

Schools Co-operative Society Website – The overaching membership body representing all co-operative schools.

http://www.co-operativeschools.coop/

Co-operative Academies Trust – the academy trust operating in the North of England under the banner of the Co-operative Retail group – the well known high street stores

http://co-operative.academy/

Co-operative Schools Network – Local networks of co-operative educators working on the ground across the country to support co-operative schools

http://csnetwork.coop/

Co-operative College – The originators of the Co-operative Foundation Trust model providing resource and support for co-operative schools

http://www.co-op.ac.uk/

Notes:

[1] Based on an estimate supplied to me by Mark Merrywest of the  Co-operative Schools Network, 2 April, 2016.

[2] In England and Wales, a foundation school is a state-funded school in which the governing body has greater freedom in the running of the school than in community schools. Foundation schools were set up under the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 to replace grant-maintained schools, which were funded directly by central government. Grant-maintained schools that had previously been voluntary controlled or county schools (but not voluntary aided) usually became foundation schools.

Foundation schools are a kind of “maintained school”, meaning that they are funded by central government via the local education authority, and do not charge fees to students. As with voluntary controlled schools, all capital and running costs are met by the government. As with voluntary aided schools, the governing body employs the staff and has responsibility for admissions to the school, subject to rules imposed by central government.

References

Bennett, M. (2016, March 25). The Schools Business. Retrieved from http://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2016/03/25/matthew-bennett/the-schools-business/
Glatter, R. (2012). Persistent Preoccupations The Rise and Rise of School Autonomy and Accountability In England. Educational Management Administration & Leadership, 40(5), 559–575. http://doi.org/10.1177/1741143212451171
Mausethagen, S. (2013). A research review of the impact of accountability policies on teachers’ workplace relations. Educational Research Review, 9, 16–33. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.edurev.2012.12.001
Nash, J. (2016, April 4). Our school reforms. We want parents to be more involved in their children’s education – not less. Retrieved from http://www.conservativehome.com/platform/2016/04/john-nash-our-schools-reforms-we-want-parents-to-be-more-involved-in-their-childs-education-not-less.html
Noordegraaf, M., & De Wit, B. (2012). Responses to Managerialism: How Management Pressures Affect Managerial Relations and Loyalties in Education. Public Administration, 90(4), 957–973. http://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9299.2012.02068.x
Watson, S. (2014). The impact of professional development on mathematics teachers’ beliefs and practices (eThesis). University of Nottingham. Retrieved from http://eprints.nottingham.ac.uk/27744/