Fraser Nelson

Gove’s ‘free schools’ will be able to profit

Gove's 'free schools' will be able to profit
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In all the excitement, I forgot to flag up to Coffee Housers a fact that we dropped in the leader column of today’s magazine. Michael Gove’s new Swedish schools will, it seems, be allowed to make a profit. I said in the editorial that:

“Crucially, it now looks likely that the new schools will be able to run for profit — as Anders Hultin, the architect of the Swedish system, argued in this magazine last week. This may come in the form of a ‘management fee’. But if this happens, then Britain’s obsession with the quality of schools could blossom into an education industry.”

Hultin’s article was picked up by The Daily Telegraph. Profit, he says, means Britain would have an education industry. Teachers as entrepreneurs. Without profit, Cameron and Gove would have to rely on charities with far less motive to expand and pride themselves on the length of their waiting list – as is the case in Sweden.

It is my understanding that Cameron has agreed: he wants an English education industry. An industry needs to make profit. Now, the profits are only about 3% or 4% - but it makes the fundamental difference between a profit-seeking company or a can’t-be-arsed charity. There is an example, the Engelska Skolan in Stockholm set up in 1993 by two women – one who believed in the profit motive, the other did not. They went their separate ways. The one who didn’t like profits is still running a very-well-regarded school, with a lengthy waiting list. The profit-seeker set up a huge and prestigious chain International Engelska Skolan, which expands every time demand exceeds supply. The profit motive is the best means of getting schools to where the demand is – as several academic studies show.

As Hultin said, it is hard to know on what ground the Conservatives would reject profits when one considers the evidence.

“Just a couple of weeks ago, Sweden’s Social Democratic party made a clear statement dropping its opposition to profit-making schools and saying that its sole concern is whether schools are performing well or badly. They could hardly do otherwise. After 17 years of this educational experiment in Sweden, it is clear that the for-profit chains have greatly helped social mobility. They have given low-income parents a choice of school that only the rich in England have. It would be odd to think that the Swedish left is more relaxed about profit-seeking schools than the British Conservative party.”

Odd indeed.  Now, Cameron may ask these schools to take profit as a management fee (this is already done by agencies who run schools for LEAs, and who supply staff to schools – there is a precedent). He can call it what he likes. But Cameron realises that if he wants a home-grown English education industry – something which could well turn out to be a world leader as this young century matures - then he must allow them to make a profit. This, Coffee Housers, is very significant news. Done properly, it means that it could well be a Conservative government that makes the concept of sink schools extinct. I know this Che meme irritates some CoffeeHousers, but this time it is warranted. This would indeed by a Tory education revolution.