Coffee House

How to repair a free school – the next stage of Michael Gove’s reforms

28 February 2014

3:36 PM

28 February 2014

3:36 PM

Any government can set out on a journey of reform – the question is whether they can stay on course upon hitting turbulence. The coalition is entering this phase now. Its flagship reforms, universal credit and free schools, are encountering difficulty. We all know about the welfare problems, but not much attention has yet fallen on the nature of Michael Gove’s impending headache. I looked at this in my Telegraph column.

There are now 174 free schools in England, and by this time next year it’ll be almost 300. Statistically, some of these are going to have problems – and this is the test for the government. If you were a venture capitalist and backed 300 businesses, how many would you expect to fail? You’d be lucky if it were as few as 30. Gove does not pretend to have invented a formula for guaranteed education success – instead, he is simply inviting teachers and school groups to set up choice in the state system, and see how they get on. The test is not whether these schools stumble, but how they recover. And how quickly the problem is diagnosed.

Any day now, Ofsted will release its report in Britain’s first profit-seeking school, IES Breckland. It’s likely to be a dismal report, and I’d be surprised if it didn’t deliver the worst verdict (‘inadequate’). [Update: this has now happened.] So – proof of failure? Not quite. There’s more to the story, and it’s one I’ve been following for a while. For CoffeeHousers who are interested, here it is…

IES is Sweden’s no. 1 schools group, and Breckland was their flagship British school. They already worked out that things were not going right, so they dealt with it in the Swedish way. They sent over their chief operating officer, a Lancastrian ex-head teacher named John Fyles, to take over and recruit a new head teacher. Other staff changes were made. But midway through all this, a week before the new head teacher was about to start, Ofsted inspectors arrived. They had got wind that there was trouble, and in their 36-hour inspection found a school that was, to put it politely, in transition. With so many temporary staff, and a temporary head teacher, IES Breckland will have been a pretty depressing sight. The Ofsted report will be a snapshot of chaos in this transition period, rather than a snapshot of what it’s like now under the new head teacher. But one damning Ofsted report may well be enough to put IES’s British expansion plans on ice.

I visited to IES Breckland soon after it opened, shown around by a beaming Matthew Hancock, the skills minister. He’s the local MP and it was his idea for parents to open a free school. Breckland Middle School had been earmarked for closure by Suffolk County Council, as part of some bureaucratic reorganization. Parents protested, but Hancock told them they could do better. Under Gove’s system, parents simply cannot be pushed about by the council anymore. If the council doesn’t want to run a school, the parents have the power to find someone who will. The parents held a beauty parade, and IES won. The snag: IES is a profit-seeking school, and the government is technically against them. Nick Clegg went bananas, and said he’d veto any more profitmaking schools.


IES started with two teachers, one who believed in profit and the other who didn’t. The one who didn’t is still running a very successful school in Stockholm, with a long waiting list to be manipulated by middle class parents. The one who believed in profit, Barbara Bergstrom, went on to make Internationella Engelska Skolan the biggest, most successful free school chain in Sweden. That’s what the profit motive does: it expands success. And deals quickly with failure.

The Breckland parents went to visit IES Enskede in Stockholm, as did I last week when trying to work out what had gone wrong with IES in Suffolk. You can see why the Breckland parents were impressed. It has 900 students of around 40 nationalities, but 100 per cent of its kids get the grades for pre-university sixth-form college. In a nearby comparable school, it’s 67 per cent. The Swedish average is 76 per cent. Overall, IES’s average is 98 per cent.

The success is not just academic. First Aid Kit (pictured above), the folk duo recently named by Cameron as one of his favourites, started off strumming in IES Enskede’s massive auditorium.  Sanny Dahlbeck, a welterweight boxer, started out in its gyms. Daniel Adams-Ray, a rapper recently signed by Sony, is also one of its alumni. I mention this because in England, it’s privately-educated kids who seem to do disproportionately well in music and sport because they have schools that put a lot of effort into such areas. This doesn’t happen in Sweden. There is almost no demand for fee-paying schools.

IES has a very different approach to learning. In Sweden, its schools are seen as being too English – too disciplinarian and short on ‘student democracy’. While they’ve never had a serious criticism in an inspection, they tend to get told off for being too strict. But this is precisely what parents want – they’re worried about a lax Swedish council system that is hurtling down the league tables. IES Enskede has its waiting list full until 2023. So it’s expanding. This is another key point: a non-profitmaking school would be delighted with this, sit back and rest on laurels while expelling the tough-to-teach troublemakers. IES never expels anyone, and hires ‘student care’ people who go around the corridors, making sure the kids are all right. It reacts to waiting lists by expending: two more schools are set to open in that locality – and the formula for excellence expanded further.

But can you replicate this in Suffolk? IES is known for taking great care about its culture, and training new staff its different way of teaching. They reject the idea that teaching is about 45 minutes spent in a classroom; to them, teaching is about relationships with pupils. The attention lavished on problem pupils, and the higher staff ratios in the corridors, looks odd to British eyes. But it seems to work.

It’s unclear if this formula was applied well in Suffolk.  The mistake IES made was to devolve too much, to hire an entirely new set of teachers and then leave them to it. They were anxious about imposing too Swedish a formula on an English system, but in retrospect it’s clear they were too hands-off. They worked out too late that things were going wrong. But when they moved in, they did so decisively and quickly – with a substantial and radical turnaround plan. They’re now throwing everything at Breckland, knowing that their global reputation is at stake.

My point: Gove’s system is not just about new schools – it’s about new watchdogs. This means the parents, who can take their kids away from a school if it’s not good enough. School groups, who can swoop if one of their schools isn’t good enough, like IES did before Ofsted came to call. So in a way, the signs of trouble show the system working as it should. The watchdogs seem to be biting.

Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.

Show comments
  • Desdemona’s bane

    IES in Sweden is a great place to be…if you are the owner/investor. If you are a student, a teacher, or an administrator, it is a dreadful experience. The culture there is rotten to the core and grades are tremendously inflated. These kids coming out of IES with top grades are average at best. Do you really think those IES students are that much better than the students at the public school down the block? If so, you are falling for their marketing strategy hook, line, and sinker. Of course they have long lines and parents want to get their kids into IES schools…because IES schools give the highest grades, not the best education! A significant portion of IES graduates do NOT have fond memories of their time in those schools. And I bet you people are the ones always wondering what the universities are talking about when they say they must dumb down the curriculum in order to keep from flunking all the incoming students.

  • Thomas Stenstroem

    There is a backlash against free schools in Sweden right now. Some of them have had to close down due to insufficient number of applicants. Others have been disgraced in the public debate based on disclosure of their profits being sent to tax havens abroad.

    Also: The free school sector has contributed to a serious inflation in grades. That’s not surprising when you want to recruit as many students as possible to create dividends for the venture capitalists. The figures quoted from IES in Enskede bear witness to this.

    There is now a political consensus about tougher rules for the free schools. There may be a change of government in the autumn and further restrictions on the huge profits (taken from the public purse) may be introduced.

    Parents are now careful when deciding on the alternatives for their children. Too many have been let down when their free school has all of a sudden been closed down before the end of the adademic year.

    • Fraser Nelson

      Thomas, if there’s a backlash then why does no serious Swedish political party propose abolishing or halting the expansion of free schools?

  • glurk

    Getting your kids through state run schools is a nightmare. Children spend 12-14 years at school. During that time they will have seen at least two changes of government. Governments and councils favourite activity is tinkering with education for political reasons and this political tinkering causes amazing problems with the stability of of school life. Everything from meals, types of lessons available, timetables, teaching name it, is subject to this quite often destructive tinkering.
    Local and national governments purpose in life is to be re-elected, NOT to maintain anything like stability in schools necessarily. We should think seriously about methods of education that will at least last the time of one childs education. Mention the words ‘latest initiative’, which covers anything from cleaning the toilets for teachers performance in class and listen to the groans from teachers. Michael Gove will last until the next change of government and it will be pass the parcel in school again. The parcel being our kids.

  • rtj1211

    I think you’ll find that the formula for turning around schools has existed in the UK for decades. Whilst the ILEA was badged a hotbed of socialism, that doyen of right wing thought, Lord Joseph, was on good terms with its senior officers and the inspectorate were part of the team engaged in hiring a new head, along with the Governors.

    It’s only when British politics is hate-filled tribalism that you have to go abroad for solutions. Michael Wilshaw will have them and the knowledge will exist in many other places too.

    If you consider potential reasons for failure they include:

    1. Lack of demand for the offering – either intrinsic lack of demand or poor marketing.
    2. Demand exists but quality of offering is poor – either poor teachers or the wrong sort of teachers for the pupil challenges.
    3. Potential quality is high but internal HR issues/interface with Govt/governors/parents issues are destroying the school.
    4. Issues are clear but evidence of self-healing exists.

    There aren’t really many more to be honest.

    Points 2 – 4 should emerge clearly from an inspection report. Whether demand issues would is perhaps a moot point, since that requires testing issues outwith the school (namely with potential parents, primary school heads etc etc).

    It really is time for Britain to stop its civil war and realise that the solutions expertise already reside within its population, it’s just that the media/politics/financial ideological warfare that has raged in Britain for 75 years is destroying it from within.

  • exSecondaryModernTeacher

    If IES devolved too much then who exactly is running the school? Sabres Educational Trust theoretically does but its website’s down and it barely gets a mention on the website of IES Breckland.

    IES appointed the first head, not Sabres. In 2013 she was paid over £86k according to Sabres’ accounts. She’s now gone along with six other members of staff who left just before her.

    The school may be in “transition”. But no such excuse is allowed to LA maintained schools judged Inadequate. Enforced academy conversion begins while the ink is still drying. Even if Ofsted monitoring finds the school is improving while still an LA school that isn’t enough to stop some chain taking it over (nice little earner – AET, one of the largest academy chains, paid out £500,000 in “unusual” payments to its trustees).

    The ASA has just censured IES for using “outstanding” in its on-line brochure for IES Breckland. You can read about it here:

  • WSOS

    Why can’t successful local authorities open new schools in areas where there is a shortage of places – there is no logic in the policy which means that “free” schools can open in areas where there is a surplus of places and that other areas can be left with a shortage.

    • rtj1211

      The way successful councils get around this is to expand on existing premises. London Borough of Hillingdon is doubling the size of two primary schools due to demand issues by building new infrastructure on the existing sites. There’s also a completely new school going to be set up on a massive new housing development (ex RAF base).

      Although they didn’t open any new schools themselves, they are radically expanding provision.

      Isn’t that the most important criterion??

      • WSOS

        In my area the local authority are also expanding primary schools. However, one of the reasons parents chose a school was because it was small. One of the arguments put forward by “free” schools is that they will be small and friendly. So, simply enlarging existing schools is not necessarily an answer.

  • WSOS

    Statistically, “free” schools are failing at a much higher rate than community schools. Statistically, the cost per pupil is much higher and when they do fail, it is the community schools which have to pick up the pieces. Statistically, “free” schools are opening up in areas where there are already surplus school places, rather than where they are needed. Despite the bad press given to local authorities, time and again where schools are failing, it is the support from the local authority (for which they get no money) which is mentioned by Ofsted inspectors as helping to gain an improvement. Gove is, very belatedly, establishing academies commissions to act as watchdogs for academies – in other words he is replacing local authorities with another local authority – the difference being that one is democratically accountable and the other isn’t.

    What is depressing about any discussion about education is that, as exampled by previous comments, that people reduce the argument to personal abuse and prejudice, rather than spending the time checking the facts, most of which are available on both the Ofsted and Department for Education websites.

  • Laura McInerney

    On a point of information, this statement “If the council doesn’t want to run a school, the parents have the power to find someone who will. The parents held a beauty parade, and IES won.” is factually inaccurate.

    Parents – in fact, anyone – have the right to apply to run a free school, and if they are successful (success rate is currently running at about 17%) then they MIGHT be able to broker a deal for the building that would mean putting a new school where the previously closing one was due to go. But there’s no right to simply take over a school that a council is closing and put someone else in charge. That’s not a thing.

    Also, if parents wanted to open a school in the past in response to local need they were able to do so under the last Labour government, Elm Green School is an example of this.

    • WSOS

      to say that anyone can apply to run a “free” school is inaccurate. Local authorities can’t, even when there is a shortage of places. In fact, they are not allowed to open any new school, even when one is desperately needed.

      • exSecondaryModernTeacher

        WSOS – you’re right that LAs can’t open their own schools any more – this Government has said there’s a presumption that all new schools must be either academies or free schools. But that’s been reinterpreted by Fraser Nelson as LAs not wanting to open schools.

        They can’t.

    • exSecondaryModernTeacher

      Laura – you’re right that parents could ask for a new school under Labour if there was an identified need. And the parents chose to work with the LA. But many free schools are now opened where there is no need. Oldham is one example – one free secondary school opened last September when Oldham already has 1000 surplus places. And the Government’s allowing a second secondary free school to open in Oldham in September 2014.

      And in Beccles, even the Tory council leader and the Tory MP were against the establishment of Beccles Free School because it wasn’t needed. The NAO estimates this has cost £241m to set up schools in areas where there’s no need.

      • Fraser Nelson

        If free schools are open where there is “no need” then how comes they find enough students to fill that school?

        • exSecondaryModernTeacher

          It may well be true in many cases (but not all) a new free school attracts enough pupils to fill its spaces. In areas with surplus places this is likely to have a negative impact on existing schools. 81% of secondary free schools were established in areas with surplus places (NAO) but the LA still has a statutory duty to manage school place supply. LAs can’t shut free schools or academies. Any axe would have to fall on existing LA schools even if those schools were good or better and popular with parents.

          As long ago as October 2012, the Local Government Association warned that LAs’ ability to manage over supply was hampered by the academies and free school policies. More info here:

          • Fraser Nelson

            Sure – my point is that the parents obvious thought there was a “need” otherwise they would not send kids there. Surplus places often a sign of bad schools that parents want to avoid.

            • exSecondaryModernTeacher

              No – surplus places in a local authority are because they’re aren’t enough school age children in the area to fill available places. This is a problem that local authorities are legally obliged to tackle but the academies/free school programme makes it more difficult, if not impossible, for them to do so.

              It’s true there are hotspots like some parts of London where there is an urgent demand for places particularly at primary level. But this isn’t the case everywhere.

    • Fraser Nelson

      I said they have the ** power ** not an automatic right. If parents did not have these powers, then IES Breckland would have closed down like Suffolk Council wanted – one of hundreds of schools closed for reasons of bureaucratic convenience.

  • southerner

    Gove is doing nothing more than continuing the Blair project. He wrote in the Times “All I can say looking at Mr Blair now is what’s not to like” under a headline ‘I can’t fight my feelings any more: I love Tony’.

    There will be no real change to schools until the reintroduction of selection by ability.

    You expect Hookeslaw, Fraser and the other socialist Cameron luvvies to be blind to this. But Gove continues the Blair project to an entirely uncritical MSM.

    • rtj1211

      Perhaps if you and your kind defined ‘ability’ more widely that the 3Rs, then your statement might be true. Until you do, you glorify wordsmiths and dinosaur calculators at the expense of the majority who have important skills less useful to running the Empire we no longer have nor will have ever again.

  • HookesLaw

    The whole point about ‘free’ schools is that they can fail if they are no good. Unlike local authority schools which crawl along.
    Whether or not Ofsted inspectors are competent or honest is another matter. But Mr Gove as we know is looking for a new Ofsted head.

    • David Lindsay.

      The Chief Inspector, Wilshaw, has strongly backed Morgan and laid into the vindictive Gove that another poster in this parish elegantly calls an Educational Social Darwinist.

      “Explaining his reason for backing Morgan, Wilshaw said: “She stood foursquare behind me [and] gave me a huge amount of support and gave me very good advice. She is a very good chair of the board of Ofsted. She has their trust and she has the trust and confidence of the executive board. She is very knowledgeable about education.”

      • HookesLaw

        Why is it vindictive not to renew a contract? He renewed it first time around.
        Pandering to your bigotry is no real argument.

        What is wrong with offering children a chance at a good education rather than be condemed to a sink bog standard comprehensive?
        That is real social darwinism – where children get into good schools because parents can afford the nice houses around good schools.
        Or Daddy is PM and can bend the rules to get little Leo into a nice school out of the catchement area.
        Or better still where mummy is a bigoted hypocritical left wing ranter whose loudmouth is big enough to swallow her principles and whose fees from the BBC are big enough to send her little dears to the sort of private schools she has spent her political life campaingning agianst – all to make sure they get the kind of education her socialist policies deny everyone else.

        Get your sick bigoted evil socialism out of my face.

        • southerner

          Children ARE getting into schools because of the size of their parents’ ability to buy. Until a proper conservative party advocates selection by ability and the return of grammar schools that situation will remain.

  • global city

    According to Harriet Harman that picture you chose exposes how the Spectator mag is selling paedo-lite messages to old letches.

    • Chris Morriss

      A very talented pair of young musicians.

    • Mr Creosote

      Harperson will no doubt be re-tweeting as we speak and blaming the nasty right-wing bullies at the Spectator for conducting a smear campaign.

  • Mr Creosote

    Fraser, as I know from bitter experience, one damning Ofsted report can do more than curtail expansion plans, it can completely wipe out the school.

    When they get their inevitable “inadequate” grading from some small minded, badly-trained Inspector working on commission, they will find that new parents will click on their website, see the word “inadequate” and vanish. Bookings will fall off a cliff, such is the nature of our i-phone based existence.

    When they then try to appeal the result, they will find that Ofsted have no meaningful appeal system and their chances of getting the initial grading changed will be less than 1%. The whole process will be pointless and expensive and will take about a year. It will then take another year for the reputational damage to gradually unwind and school finances will not recover until year 3, by which time they may be forced to close.

    This is the reality of a damning Ofsted report, it is happening across the country (especially in the Early Years sector), and has caused the demise of many good and outstanding settings.