The Coalition’s education ministers seem convinced that academy-chains are “the next big thing”. Money is available for academy sponsors to take over failing(ish) schools, and chains are an increasing player in upcoming ‘Free Schools’. Theoretically, ‘successful’ chains will deliver the economies of scale and quality assurance of LEAs, while also being free of unions, pesky “regulation”, or requirements to go and account for oneself among local government representatives. You can see why Conservatives like the idea.
The problem? Evidence from the States suggests that really successful academy chains tend not to ‘scale up’. KIPP, the most-discussed, incredibly successful US chain, operates 125 schools. In a country of 100,000+ schools. Not because it “needs time to grow” – the chain started in 1993. No, smallness is a conscious choice.
Why? Steven Wilson, former Harvard fellow and CEO of a charter school chain, argues that chains are constrained by finances and human capital. Education reformers too often believe money and talented people are sitting around waiting to be found and used in a new school venture. But sadly, it’s not so.
After interviewing 10 chain leaders, Wilson found 5 things that limit school chain size. They’re here, along with how they might influence the UK:
(1) Political risk – This is less of a problem in the UK as Labour seem unlikely to reverse academy policy. But aggression at local government level still exists in some areas, particularly towards academy chains, and it can be off-putting.
(2) Unrealistic business plans – This has hampered almost every US chain. Again, it’s down to that false optimism about money and people.
(3) Start-up skills requirement – Opening schools takes a lot of skill and not every chain can afford in. In a country where schools have regularly been locally planned it’s also unlikely there will be enough people with these skills to share around.
(4) Undisciplined client acquisition – Chains take on schools without really knowing what they are getting themselves in for. Then they bomb. And then they get frightened off from ever expanding again.
(5) – Uneven design implementation – The chain takes over a school without a clear plan for explaining how it will change the school so it reflects the chain’s image.
So far I’m not hearing conversations about these barriers. Instead I’m hearing more and more of the false optimism: “Of course academy chains will spring up”…”There’s definitely enough talented people”…”The government has plenty of capacity money”… But it’s not true. There’s no definitely, plenty or ‘of course’ about this. Like a rebellious elder sibling, the US made these mistakes already so we don’t have to. If England wants academy chains it must work to get them and the sooner we get past fantasy and into detail the better off we’ll be.