Making money from schools

Why would anyone want to take the risk of running a ‘for profit’ school when there are so many easier way to make money out of state education? At one time, companies and foundations from the USA and Sweden were going to revolutionise schooling in England, while making a profit at the same time. Seems it didn’t happen quite that way. The academies that both the Erudition Schools Trust and the Learning Schools Trust opened have all been re-brokered away from the groups that originally founded them and now both of the groups are seemingly no more.

Another education experiment originally from the age of new Labour capitalism has bitten the dust. But, that doesn’t mean you cannot make money from schools. Books, furniture, resources, services such as accountancy, human relations, payroll and legal services, as well as construction and the maintenance of school buildings and facilities can all be offered at a profit. Then, as regular readers know, there is the recruitment industry that thrives on helping schools find staff.

Many years ago, in 1999 to be precise, the then Education Select Committee started an inquiry into ‘The role of private companies in the management and supply of state education services’. I don’t think it was ever completed.  I noted in my written submission that J S Mill had taken the view  in his essay  entitled On Liberty that the role of the state was to ensure the education of its citizens and not necessarily to operate the schools. The question was, and still is, how can The State achieve its end of educating its citizens without paying more of taxpayers’ money than is necessary?

The National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee are there to see that where possible public funds are used judiciously. I would say wisely, but I am not sure that is always the case. Mill, was convinced that the State should not necessarily run the service of education. But are politicians and these days, educationalists, any better at obtaining value for money if the service is run by others: sometimes not.

In 1999, I pointed out that the CEO of an education company with a turnover of £48 million earned £122,000 whereas a Chief Education Officer, remember them, of an authority with an education budget of more than £150 million didn’t even earn a six figure salary.  Presumably, the difference was the price to be paid for risk. You can find the same differentials today between CEOs of MATs and chief officers in local authorities, but with, in my opinion, less justification.

Some of us do try to challenge the orthodoxy, by taking the disruptive approach allowed by new technology. TeachVac www.teachvac.co.uk is one such attempt. Like Twitter, Facebook and many other on-line service sit is free to users and makes its money in other ways. In the case of TeachVac, analysing the growing amount of data and using it to provide additional paid services.

With growing concerns about school funding it is time to develop mechanisms for driving down private sector charges to schools. The government’s recent initiative in IT procurement is a good example of what can be achieved.

Education icon goes to overseas buyer

The news that the TSL Group, publishers of the TES and The Higher, is to be sold to TPG a leading global private investment firm currently with $US56.7 billion of assets under management, will come as no shock to those who have been aware that the existing owner of the Group, Charterhouse, has been looking to sell the titles and associated on-line presence. This sale will see these iconic British titles taken into foreign ownership. It will also no doubt see the profits from the TES recruitment business flow overseas to support the development of a global brand. TPG are big in technology, and have held positions in some other British companies in the past, including Virgin Rail and Debenhams. However, this seems like a new foray for them directly into the UK education market.

I worked for the TSL Group between 2008 and my retirement in 2011. This sale does raise the issue in my mind about whether there should be a new attempt to create a low-cost vehicle to serve the UK teacher recruitment market, perhaps owned and operated by a consortium of interested parties such as the professional associations, governor organisations and teacher trainers, along the lines of say the NfER.

I have pointed out before that the system I use to track vacancy levels could be applied to school web sites as a low cost recruitment tool and, providing schools and teacher training providers cooperated, could reach the vast majority of teachers seeking either their first appointment or to change jobs much more cheaply than the present profit-making concerns. The fact that the last time the government tried such an initiative with the School Recruitment Service it failed doesn’t mean the idea was wrong, just perhaps that it was badly executed at the time.

Unlike the sale of companies such as Cadbury, of some utility companies, and many of the rail franchises to overseas buyers, the school recruitment market can stay in UK hands, and the cost to schools can be reduced if there is a will to do so. A recruitment business can also offer the platform for other services to teachers and schools, but with a UK on-line focus.