Driving Society Forward.
Edison Schools in the UK
Glenn Rikowski, London, 23rd April 2007
Nine years ago, Francis Beckett warned teachers and all those interested in defending state education in the UK that an American company, Edison Schools, was having talks with the New Labour government regarding running state schools on contract for profit (see Beckett, 1998). David Blunkett, then New Labour Education Secretary, was at least considering the idea. But nothing came of it, immediately. Following struggles to turn a profit with its US schools contracts (it took the company 11 years to generate profits) and after a US Federal investigation into some of its operations, Edison Schools persisted in its ambitions to penetrate the UK schools market. For the last five years it has had an office in the UK (Marley, 2007), and has been involved in 50 consultancies for primary, second and special schools (Ibid,). However, Edison was failing to run whole schools in the UK, until now. At last, in the dog days of the Blair regime, Edison's dreams of a significant UK foothold in the schools sector have come true.
Last Friday, it emerged in the educational press that Edison would run Salisbury School, in Edmonton, in the London Borough of Enfield. The contract was to be £1million for three years, and Edison would only get the full amount if it delivered on better results, fewer exclusions and increased parental approval of the school's functioning (Meikle, 2007). As James Meikle notes:
"An American-owned education company is to take over the senior management of a London comprehensive school in what is thought to be the first case of its kind for a local authority school" (Ibid.).
Alex Stephens in today's London Evening Standard called it 'an unprecedented move'. What is significant here is that Edison is only taking over the senior management of the school and not drafting in its own teachers, or teachers trained by the company. Thus, it is basically playing an educational management organisation (EMO) role at the school (as opposed to the local authority) level. There's a 'failsafe' in this deal: should Edison Schools not reach its targets it can always argue that it was not given sufficient control over frontline teaching staff.
What, if anything is so special about this Edison Schools deal? Probably two aspects make it an 'unprecedented move'. First, it appears that this is an extension of New Labour's policy on failing schools. The most controversial feature of the government's policy on failing schools to date has been to close them down and replace them with Academies (though it has tried other strategies too). However, New Labour is finding this strategy difficult of late. On the one hand, it has had to face increasingly effective local campaigns to stop Academies being built. On the other, it is having trouble finding sponsors for Academies (who need to cough up anything up to £2million) in the light of the ongoing 'honours-for-cash' scandal, where some sponsors of Academies have allegedly been awarded honours for participating in the programme. The recent publication of Francis Beckett's groundbreaking book (Beckett, 2007) on Academies may also have caused a few jitters amongst some key players in the Department for Education and Skills. Perhaps an alternative was required. Secondly, and most obviously, Edison Schools is an American company. Wholly foreign companies have not to date run frontline teaching services in the UK, though foreign companies and multinationals do have parts to play in the Private Finance Initiative (PFI), where school building and refurbishment programmes are involved. But why let an American, or any foreign company, penetrate the fledgling UK educational services market if the aim is to build up indigenous companies as potential export earners in schools markets?
As I have argued elsewhere (Rikowski, 2007), one of the reasons New Labour has opened up the schools sector to companies through outsourcing is that it seeks to nurture home-grown operators in this field who can then go out and earn vital export earnings by becoming international players in the global schools market. New Labour has gone about this very slowly – too slowly for companies wanting substantial chunks of the schools' sector outsourced – yet strategically. Edison Schools has been courting New Labour for penetrating the UK schools sector for around 10 years, and has been continually brushed: until now. So, what has changed? This is difficult to say. Perhaps New Labour is using Edison Schools as a battering ram to open up the school improvement industry to private operators on a significantly larger scale. If the scheme to improve the Salisbury School works (or, more importantly, it appears that it works) then UK companies could charge into the breach. On the other hand, perhaps Edison Schools was prepared to dredge up the World Trade Organisation's General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) for the UK government's persistence in ignoring the company for substantial schools contracts: the spectre of 'unfair trade' in educational services was maybe looming over Alan Johnson, the UK Education Secretary.
Whatever the origins of and rationale behind the deal, it is dispiriting seeing the response of Peter Lewis, Enfield's Director of Education, Children's Services & Leisure. He says:
"I'm delighted to be embarking on this ground-breaking initiative which brings the best of local authority practice together with the open market. This is a real opportunity to deliver a new school improvement approach that has the needs of the students at its core" (in Stephens, 2007).
And the new head teacher at the Salisbury School, Trevor Averre-Beeson added that:
"Edison's sensible and practical programme will help the school put in place the framework for further improvements, with an emphasis on providing a positive learning environment, continuing professional development for staff, creating a strong ethos of personal responsibility and self-discipline, and an effective support network for students and their families" (Ibid.).
However, Alex Stephens (2007) noted that the Salisbury School had come out of "special measures" in 2003. It has made some improvement since. In the light of this, Steve Sinnott, General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers, has suggested that rather than lining Edison's pockets the money would be better spent if it went directly into improving the school (in Meikle, 2007).
For those who have not heard of Edison Schools before, or who might hold that the company can bring nothing but good to Salisbury School, and perhaps eventually other schools in the UK, then I would suggest that they read Kenneth Saltman's excellent book, The Edison Schools (Saltman, 2005). Saltman not only brings Edison's effectiveness to turn around schools and its probity into question, but also alerts us to the dangers such operators pose to the development of democracy:
"Challenges to Edison and public school privatization more generally must go beyond criticisms based in effective delivery of instruction measured by test scores. It must begin to address the dangers posed to the promise of a democratic society of the unchecked expansion of corporate power and the infiltration of public schools as a crucial place for the development of a more genuinely democratic society" (p.206).
Technicist critiques of Edison and their ilk are insufficient. We need to view them in the context of what sort of society we need and want.
Beckett, F. (1998) Uncle Sam wants your school, New Statesman, 21st August, pp.16-17.
Beckett, F. (2007) The Great City Academy Fraud, London: Continuum.
Marley, D. (2007) US firm takes over in £1m deal, Times Educational Supplement, 20th April, p.3.
Meikle, J. (2007) US firm to take over London local authority school, The Guardian, 23rd April, p.7, and online at: http://education.guardian.co.uk/schools/story/0,,2063219,00.html
Murphy, J. (2007) US firm to take over north London school, London Evening Standard, 23rd April, p.20.
Rikowski, G. (2007) The Profit Virus: The Business Takeover of Schools, 19th February, London, online at: http://www.flowideas.co.uk/?page=articles&sub=The%20Profit%20Virus%20-%20The%20Business%20Takeover%20of%20Schools
Saltman, K. (2005) The Edison Schools: Corporate Schooling and the Assault on Public Education, New York & London: Routledge.
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