Low cost private schools: any appetite?

Some of you may have come across the magazine that exists for those interested in investing in education. From time to time its journalists ring me up to ask about issues relating to the private sector in education As a business operator, albeit with TeachVac (www.teachvac.co.uk) using disruptive modern technology, I understand their need to assess opportunities and I happily share my thinking with them.

Recently, the magazine hosted a conference in London. Mostly, the topics discussed were in the higher education realm, an area of less direct interest to me at present than schools. However, there was a session about low cost private sectors schools and possible opportunities in England. Now that’s a topic of more direct interest to me, although they may not know that fact. Many years ago I undertook a piece of research for a client about the possible opportunities in the private school market for a low cost model at a time when school fees were rising sharply. My conclusion was that such a school might well struggle as it offered neither exclusivity nor the small classes that were both the trademarks of many private schools.

Has my judgement changed? Well, I haven’t done any in-depth analysis, so this is very much my first thoughts, but my hunch is that if anything the market is less propitious for new entrants than twenty years ago. With an expansion of selective state schools on the horizon, there may be opportunities in the primary sector, but less so in the secondary. Why pay for what you can achieve for nothing? Paying for tuition is also a cheaper option than paying for a school with some parts you won’t need.

Much could depend upon where the bar for entry to selective schools is set if the Conservative were to go down that path where they to be re-elected. Too selective and they will have little overall impact on existing comprehensive schools in most areas. Too low and we really have a return to the two-tier system of yesteryear. In that case, there might be an appetite in urban areas for fee-paying schools for those pupils that just missed out on a selective school, especially in a period of growth in pupil numbers. However, the existing fee-paying schools should be able to cope with that demand, especially if there were the transfer of some traditional entrants from these schools to the selective schools as parents feel they no longer have to shell out on school fees. You only have to look at what happens in areas with sixth form colleges with a high reputation and the distribution of fee-paying schools.

So, I think that I would be wary of thinking the future holds significant opportunities for the low-cost private school market. There might be some specific groups of parents still wanting to exit the state system but, while there is the chance of a free school paid for by the State, surely that would seem like a cheaper option for them.

Where I have always thought there might be a market is in the vocational skills area for the 14-18 age-group, especially if an institution is closely linked to the local job or apprenticeship markets. Even better, if you can persuade employers to subsidise the cost of the school in return for a fast track into the challenging sections of the labour market. The armed forces have historically understood this section of the market with their apprentice training colleges of yesteryear.

A school offering direct entry into the hospitality or travel industries, where the local further education college isn’t doing a good job, is one possibility. This section of the market also comes with less need for expensive building requirements associated with teaching the full range of curriculum subjects. So, find a niche that can be taught in traditional office type accommodation near a park or other outside space and in an urban area with good transport links and it might be worth creating a business plan; especially if the wages for lecturers can be low, but still better than when working as an experienced professional in the sector and you might have something worth taking further. But, there may well be some other opportunities in the education world for many investors.

Computing in schools

Did you know that computing was part of the EBacc? I am sure you did. However, not all MPs appear to as clued up, as the evidence published last week as part of the House of Commons Science Select Committee report on the ‘Digital Skills Crisis’ revealed. http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201617/cmselect/cmsctech/270/270.pdf

Since the MP unaware that you could study computing as part of the EBacc is a member of the Scottish Nationalist Party, she can perhaps be forgiven for not knowing the intricacies of the education system in England.

Whether the chair of the Committee should have allowed the evidence from the Royal Society of Scotland to appear in the Report as if it was from The Royal Society may be a less forgivable oversight (paragraph 59). I also am slightly perplexed about the reference in the Report to the fact that, ‘The Government has set targets for recruiting teachers in Maths and Physics’ and the requirement from the Committee that ‘They should also make a similar pledge for Computer Science.’ To the best of my knowledge, Computer Science has been treated in the same way as other Ebacc subjects in the 2016 allocation of training places. But, perhaps the Committee knows something the rest of us don’t.

The Committee held an oral evidence session with some witnesses from the school sector. The report notes that, ‘Not only do just 35% of ICT teachers have a relevant qualification but the British Educational Suppliers Association (BESA) calculated that 22% of IT equipment in schools is ineffective.’ They also noted that ‘Ofsted has concluded that the impact of digital technology on education standards has been varied, reflecting different levels of investment, access to high quality broadband and teacher support.’ They also interviewed the Schools Minister, Mr Gibb.

However, they didn’t seem to notice that computer science and its predecessor IT has failed to meet the Teacher Supply Model number set in each of the last three years and seems set to do so again this year. Perhaps the Science Committee might like to go on and hold a joint inquiry with the Education Select Committee so that can consider the evidence about IT and computing in schools in more detail. They might like to ask how schools are coping with the digital divide? I am sure a lack of access to IT resources whether because of poverty or through being located in a rural area without fast broadband speeds must hold back social mobility.

I agree with the Committee that the digital economy is of great importance to the future prosperity of the country. After all, TeachVac, our free recruitment site, depends upon high quality programming skills for its success. Hopefully, we can increase the number and quality of those teaching the subject to ensure every child is both taught the subject effectively and motivated to see its wider place in future society.

Finally,a little grumble, the fact that the Committee held its last evidence session in the spring, but it has taken three months for the Report to appear is slightly depressing. I do hope it doesn’t mark a trend among Select Committees to sit on evidence for long periods before producing their reports.

Leadership: the key to successful schools

Yesterday afternoon I attended a service of celebration for the life of William Morris, First viscount Nuffield, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his death in 1963. Morris was a very influential figure in the development of Oxford, where I live, and also where I serve a part of the city as a county councillor. His Foundation’s support for the Nuffield Science and Mathematics in our schools in the years after the start of the space race in the 1960s affected the learning of a whole generation.

Also yesterday, the BBC reported that Annaliese Briggs had resigned as head of a free school only weeks after the school had opened. Press reports concentrated on her age, just 27 on appointment, and a lack of teaching experience.

The contrasting fortunes of these two individuals set me thinking about the elusive nature of leadership, and the relationship between risk taking and the other skills necessary to be successful, whether in business or education. When William Morris started making his first cars a century ago he didn’t have much knowledge to draw upon as the technology of the combustion engine driven car was still relatively new. There were others starting in the car making business at that time whose businesses didn’t thrive in the way that Morris managed to achieve. Now I am sure that Ms Briggs will go on to achieve great things in the future. Like Morris in 1913, she was starting on a new venture with a vision, but little experience. In this case perhaps that alone was not enough. No doubt when shall know more when the full reasons for her departure become known. The skills learnt making cycles in Oxford undoubtedly helped Morris understand the application of similar production line processes to car making.

Should we applaud the academy chain that took the risk of appointing someone with no formal experience in education as a head teacher or condemn them for rash decision-making? The main question is perhaps: how much risk should we allow in the leadership of schools funded by the State?

Whenever I have been asked by journalists whether anyone can become a head teacher, even with no teaching experience, I always ask the rhetorical question; can I be your editor? If a journalist responds that they always want another journalist running their paper, as they usually do, then they can see the point of my reply. But, I say, what about the period of rapid technological change we have been through during the past twenty years. Did you want an editor with more appreciation of the internet or a nose for a good story? The answer is usually that they want someone with both sets of skills. The editors should have the ability to relate to the current job in hand, but also the foresight to see how it is changing.

I do sometimes wonder how we balance this dichotomy in the education sphere. Fifty years ago middle schools were very fashionable: based on the work of those such as Alec Clegg in West Yorkshire, Roy Mason in Leicestershire, and North in Buckinghamshire. They took risks with the education system, as did the early pioneers of comprehensive education, and a generation earlier those who created the secondary modern schools from the all-age elementary schools.

The leadership for these innovations came very often from within the education establishment, whereas the pressure for change today comes from those emerging challengers to the current orthodoxy. In the past, change in education was also grounded on a sold understanding of the nature and purpose of education. Finding and preparing for leadership those who can blend experience and innovation together with an understanding of the nature of risk in public service is a key task for the National College, and a constant worry for those on the lookout for leaders for all our schools. But perhaps the change that education as a whole has yet to grasp is that from a nineteenth century ideology of schools and classrooms to a twenty-first century increasingly based upon the primacy of the individual. Now that is a topic for another post.