The dangerous liaison between free schools and for-profit making organizations is landing on our shores

Allan Beavis's picture
This site has recently debated the desirability of for-profit making companies in the running of schools, (state maintained or private) and litigation taken by schools against the companies running them may be the American Nightmare - but it may well have already landed on our shores.

Days after the publication of James Croft’s Report for the Adam Smith Institute recommending that the government “should relax present constraints on the type of organisation that can set up and manage free schools”, here is an interesting article in the Evening Standard on the latest in the row between parents and Cognita, Chris Woodhead’s for-profit company which runs the fee-paying Southbank International School and which is bidding to run state maintained free schools.

Five of the parents have now set up a campaign group in an attempt to buy back the school from Cognita, who they accuse of “milking the school for money, underpaying staff and failing to invest in it.” In a letter to parents, the group sent a letter to parents saying "Cognita have no serious interest in maximising the educational experience of our children if it impacts on their bottom line."

It appears that Cognita are not willing to sell “at any price” so the campaign group have “concluded that the only strategy that will work long term for the educational needs of our children is to take Southbank away from Cognita."

This illustrates what a disastrous policy this above all when it is introduced into state maintained schools. For-profit making companies really should have no role is running or even investing what James Croft calls “the added advantage of new source of capital funding (sic), which the Department for Education sorely needs.” Cognita’s disastrous relationship with Southbank International School mirrors the many cases of litigation in the US taken out by schools against their for-profit organizations who want to be liberated from the stranglehold that the company has them in. Such is the power that the company has over the school boards, that irreparable damage is being done to the students’ education but like Woodhead, these companies are trying to turn the tables by accusing the parents of jeopardising the school’s reputation and their children’s education.

Parents and schools governors in the maintained sector are waking up to the myth of free schools, so we can expect much more dissent once free schools have actually opened especially if Gove’s desire for them to be financed and run by private companies, as recommended by ASI comes to fruition.

But will our free schools boards have the freedom even to consider legal action, given that they will have to jump over the byzantine hoops of arguing directly with Michael Gove about if, how and why their schools have failed in the hands of a Cognita or an Ark, when it was the DfE who encouraged them to let them run their schools in the first place? The freedom to run your own school might prove to be an unbearable straightjacket.
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Andy Smithers's picture
Tue, 26/04/2011 - 21:33


You state that Cognita is bidding to run state maintained free schools.
Is this true ?
Can you name a free school project that they are currently working on.

Tokyo Nambu's picture
Tue, 26/04/2011 - 22:56

Could someone remind me what a dispute between a billionaire parent and an expensive and exclusive selective private school has to do with anything? The assumption that Chris Woodhead is so wrong that a billionaire hedge fund manager is a better source of wisdom is perhaps a change of tune for people of the left, but the majority of letters written by five parents are the stuff of green crayons, and I'm not sure why this is any different, apart from them being a lot richer.

As it's a private school, they are perfectly entitled to withdraw their children; as the parents in question are very rich people living in a large city, it's not as though making alternative arrangements will be difficult. They don't strike me as ideal poster boys for the state system.

Allan Beavis's picture
Wed, 27/04/2011 - 07:47

No one here is making the claim that parents (billionaire or otherwise) are a better source of wisdom than Chris Woodhead. And yes, parents who can afford private education can enrol their children in another private school but this won't be so easy for parents with children in a state funded free school who have serious questions over the accountability and the quality of service provision from the profit-making organization running their school.

Please re-read the last three paragraphs of my post. This should remind you what the issue is actually about.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 27/04/2011 - 07:57

Andy: Allan did not say that Cognita is bidding for free schools. He asked what would be the legal redress for parents whose "schools have failed in the hands of A Cognita or AN Ark."

In this context "A Cognita or AN Ark" is a synedoche, a figure of speech where a part (ie A Cognita) refers to the whole (ie for-profit chains).

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 27/04/2011 - 08:07

Tokyo: you ask what is the relevance of a dispute between a "billionaire parent and an exclusive selective private school". The relevance is this: a parent (actually a group of parents) is accusing a school run by a for-proft company of putting that profit before the education of children.

This row, together with court cases and concerns by Congress in the US re for-profit education companies, serves as a warning about the possible consequences of allowing for-proft organisations to run education.

However, my advice to the parents at Cognita's schools would be to withdraw their children and place them in the nearest state school. It won't harm their education - they will leave university with the same class of degree, if not slightly better, than their peers who remain in the independent sector.

Allan Beavis's picture
Wed, 27/04/2011 - 10:44

They have clearly been bidding. The Cognita website stillhas a page dedicated to Free Schools in which they state that they are “already working with a number of parent groups”. Chris Woodhead has also admitted that they had been in talks with “two further schools” and with Toby Young. They will no doubt be ready to spring into immediate action as soon as Michael Gove, who has stated that he has no 'ideological objection' to firms making profits by running his new schools, is able to react to the advice given him by the ASI report.

This report has been conveniently published at the right moment, just when the government has admitted to running out of money to support the expansion of free schools and academies, recommending that the government just needs to clear the final hurdle by allowing profit making companies to run free schools without the pretence of setting up as a charitable trust.

However, the example of the Southbank International School and many Charter Schools in America underline a fundamental disconnect between the ideologies of making profits and teaching children.

Allan Beavis's picture
Wed, 27/04/2011 - 13:59

I did not make the point that parents (billionaire or otherwise) are better equipped to run a school than Chris Woodhead. The central point is whether the bottom line of profit making companies is compatible with providing the best possible education. It is not going to be as easy for parents in a state funded free school to move their children out if there are accountability issues with the company managing their school. Please read my final three paragraphs to remind yourself what the central point of this thread is about

Allan Beavis's picture
Wed, 27/04/2011 - 14:13

There is this comment under the original web version of this Evening Standard story:

"Chris Woodhead has managed to ruin Milbourne Lodge School in Esher. This magnificent school established by the inspirational Norman Hale boasted a record number of scholarships to Eton, Winchester and St. Paul's. Now Cognita have forced out the senior staff that made this possible and brought in barely qualified staff to save money. Thus, the School numbers are down by a half and there is little chance of repeating Norman Hale's success - no hint of the ethos or the magic of this wonderful school. All thanks to the doughnuts at Cognita."

Robert Persson's picture
Tue, 28/01/2020 - 23:52

Norman Hale was a monster. He was capricious, vain and violent. My name is engraved on one of the panels in the main entrance hall of Milbourne Lodge as one of those former pupils who won a scholarship to a top public school, but the price I have paid for that scholarship has been a lifetime with generalised anxiety disorder. Milbourne Lodge was where I really learnt that doing your best isn't good enough.

Tokyo Nambu's picture
Wed, 27/04/2011 - 15:06

"Chris Woodhead has managed to ruin Milbourne Lodge School in Esher. This magnificent school established by the inspirational Norman Hale boasted a record number of scholarships to Eton, Winchester and St. Paul’s. Now Cognita have forced out the senior staff that made this possible and brought in barely qualified staff to save money."

Ah, so the measure of a school's success is how many scholarships to exclusive public schools it garners? For fans of the state system, that does seem a somewhat odd metric to use.

Robert Persson's picture
Fri, 10/07/2015 - 07:20

I am one of Norman Hale's victims. I got one of those scholarships to Eton, but at the cost of such fear and anxiety that by the time I left I had completely lost the ability to relax and enjoy free time. There is nothing worth preserving about Norman Hale's legacy and I spit on his corpse.

Amber 's picture
Tue, 20/08/2019 - 07:20

I was at Milbourne Lodge with Hale and thought it was a great school. Hale was a legend too. (I also went to Eton, hated it, still hate it and got expelled.)

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 27/04/2011 - 16:59

The OFSTED (Independent School Standards Inspection Report) for Milbourne Lodge School says it has had three headteachers in the last three years.

The comment under the Evening Standard story (reproduced by Allan) says the school is employing "barely qualified staff" to save money. This subjective comment may or may not be accurate. However, Mr Gove thinks that the use of unqualified staff is acceptable in free schools. This may be one way, therefore, that schools reduce their costs despite the fact that the OECD Economic Survey 2011 stressed the importance of teacher quality in raising pupil test scores (OECD 2011 page 102).

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 27/04/2011 - 17:09

So how else might schools reduce costs in order to maximise profits? Increasing teachers hours is a possibility. OECD found that teacher working hours in the UK are already "fairly long compared to many other OECD countries" (OECD 2011 page 102). Yet the Adam Smith Institute report states "The lesson of proprietorial schools that many teachers, particularly those approaching retirement and spouses who are second income earners, find their terms and conditions of employment better suited to a fuller lifestyle with time and energy for family life and more varied community commitments. A positive and appreciative community, in which teachers enjoy high levels of autonomy and ‘ownership’, encourages many to go the extra mile and put in the additional hours sometimes required,without feeling the need to demand additional pay." (page 20 ASI report).

It is unclear how putting in additional "required" hours allows teachers to spend more time with their families. And can we conclude from this statement that schools employing "second income earners" can pay them less because they are subsidised by the wages of their partners?

Or how about plonking the pupils in front of a computer with little classroom teaching? Adam Smith again: "A key strategy in this regard, notably among school chains, has been to migrate curriculum delivery to on screen and online formats, with a view to developing more efficient pedagogy" (page 20 ASI report).

So this is the formula in the brave new world of free schools wanting to reduce costs: unqualified teachers + lower wages + longer hours + pupils being "taught" by computer = the Govegrind curriculum.

Allan Beavis's picture
Wed, 27/04/2011 - 18:35

Sam Bowman, introducing James Croft's Adam Smith Institute in The Spectator, states that profit does not undermine educational outcomes and that "indeed, the evidence suggests that it improves them...Claims that profit-making schools deliver bad results are simply wrong." and "If a for-profit school is failing students, it will fail itself."

Here is another comment on the Evening Standard site, this time from an ex-student, which suggests that the for-profit schools may well be failing themselves and students:-

"As a former student of an educational institution run by Cognita, I must clearly say there is a drastic need for reform of this particular ownership. As cognita is a private, profit-driven firm, the main objective is for it to cut costs and expenses to generate highets possible earnings. This concept does not suit many educational institutions as their main priority should be investing every possible resource into the children/students attending these facilities. Cognita's substantial inflow is not fairly distributed to their working staff, sadly and consequently resulting in a poorer student performance and future outlook. I have seen many teachers leaving and considering leaving my school due to unfair payments and compensation for their efforts. A fair proportion of the potential some of my classmates had has therefore not been fully utilized. I am glad that this has finally been publicised and amendments are underway to fix some of the many problems clearly evident under cognita."

Sadly, this is old news in America, but new here (but so new that the Adam Smith Institute didn't flag it up?) and, so far, confined to private schools. Are profit-making free schools really the solution and alternative to LA maintained schools? America suggests not - and the signs are that Gove will not be learning from the American mistakes...

Jen's picture
Fri, 03/05/2013 - 22:29

Awkward moment when you go to this school and now you find all this hate about it...

Peter Private's picture
Tue, 22/04/2014 - 02:43

Re Milbourne Lodge
I suggest parents visit the school prior to making decisions based on the comments here. Current Head, Mr Illett is doing a great job and has done wonderful things for my children.
Re State vs Private
The one thing that always seems to be forgotten in this debate is that once something is in the private sector, you can complain, go to the courts, decide not to use the service etc, ie change can be forced upon the supplier.
You do not get these choices in the state sector. Users have little or no influence and usually the staff/unions are far more important than the user.

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