With the government announcement that it intends to force all state schools to become academies - with its preferred model that most become part of multi academy trusts, or chains, how are some state and private current chains doing?
Cognita – controversy continues
Educators come in all shades of opinion, from finely nuanced to highly colourful. Few, however, can match Cognita, the for-profit schools group founded by Chris Woodhead in 2004, now owned by investment trust Bregal Capital, who sold a substantial share of the business to private equity firm KKR earlier last year, which still garners more than its fair share of attention.
Flagship Southbank International School in central London found itself in the news for one of the worst of reasons, when a teacher hired with insufficient vetting was found to have abused pupils on school trips. Discontent at Cognita’s (alleged) lack of investment in the school has also been given a thorough airing in the media, which seized gleefully on this as a way of highlighting just what goes wrong when you attempt to introduce a profit motive into education.
However, most of Cognita’s 43 UK schools, some acquired from the Asquith Court group, walk the walk academically, and official inspections and on-line comments by parents record many sunny hours, with few brickbats.
Alpha Plus – lower profile but ambitious
That’s also the case with Alpha Plus, Cognita’s nearest rival, at least in terms of its scale of operations. Owned by … yes, another investment group (Delancey, this time) the group has its roots in the 1970s when, as Davies, Lang and Dick, it started collecting pre-preps and preps. Its portfolio of schools tends, as with Cognita’s, to be skewed largely to the ‘right’ areas of London and the home countries where the richest pickings in terms of pupil numbers are to be found.
A less flamboyant management style has led, predictably, to an altogether more subdued public profile. Don’t be deceived, however, as it is every bit as ambitious, recently raising £50 million by issuing a retail bond and building a new college with accommodation block in central London for DLD.
Also similar is its founding philosophy - a focus on taking away all that time and cost-consuming admin from individual schools, thus leaving heads and teachers free to concentrate on delivering academic excellence. Schools in need of capital investment can pitch for a share of the available funding.
GEMS – UK restructuring
Then there are the GEMS schools. Though the firm is a rapidly growing worldwide operator - it plans, according to one of its many upbeat announcements, to create 50 new schools in India alone by 2018 - its profile in the UK has somewhat diminished, following the sale of five schools in Yorkshire and Lancashire to tiny group Alpha Schools (not to be confused with Alpha Plus) and one in Cornwall to local Porthia Education. This leaves the GEMs with a few well-run establishments in the wealthier south east and, it says, no plans to bail out of the UK completely.
GEMS is a family firm, founded in Dubai in 1959 by Mr and Mrs Varkey and now run by their son Sunny, whose lifestyle on and off the pitch, as a quick internet search will reveal, is a vibrant one. With patrons including Prince Michael of Kent and a charitable trust which operates a buy one, get 10 free system, educating 100 deprived children for every 10 fee payers.
The company is good at reeling in heavyweight names, including Dr Martin Stephen, a former St Paul’s high master and, current catch of the day, Audrey Peverelli, snapped up from headship of the International School of Paris. It’s not always quite so good at hanging on to them, however. Zenna Atkins, former chair of Ofsted, lasted just seven weeks at GEMs as ‘chief executive, UK, Europe and Africa’ before departing - reason unspecified.
E-Act – struggling
Meanwhile, E-Act, one of the largest chains in the country, was instructed by the government to relinquish a string of struggling schools which had received damning Ofsted reports. Politicians have called for the government to enable Ofsted to inspect the management of academy chains as well as their schools.
It’s worth pointing out that other educational chains such as the Priory Group (of celebrity detox fame) and Cambian have also been hard at work, with far less fanfare, developing sizeable networks of generally very well regarded special schools for children with often complex learning difficulties.
The state sector – a glittering prize
To date, the smart money has headed for independent schools - and it’s proved relatively fruitful. But the serious operators have their eyes fixed on the state sector. Already something of a hot date when it comes to the investment community’s interest levels, education is set to become an even more attractive proposition with the government's determination to convert all state schools to academies and its apparent willingness to allow with-profits firms an increased presence.
International English Schools UK, the offshoot of Swedish educational firm Internationella Engelska Skolan (IES) secured what could amount to the very first of the state-hatched golden eggs - the first government contract for a for profit company to run a free school, IES Breckland, which opened in September 2012; but was unfortunately rated inadequate in its January 2014 Ofsted inspection.
As with healthcare, feelings tend to run high when there’s any whiff of a money-making culture associated with state schools. Lack of accountability, sheer greed and the potential for making an almighty hash of things are the main factors cited, though it’s fair to say that other independents, most run as charities, haven’t been universally in favour of chains either – one head of the HMC was quoted in the FT about the risks of prioritising the profit motive.
The industry doesn’t always help itself. The chosen image for one, well-attended education investment conference was a jolly-looking teddy bear helping itself to coins spilling out of a vast treasure chest, while the spectacular implosion of private equity firm Delauncey Day in a welter of management shortcomings shortly after they had acquired the Asquith Nursery group did little to present investors as the good guys.
The bottom line for parents?
Check to see if you’re signing up to a lean, mean, educational machine or one that’s being fattened for market (investment firms are known for sweating their assets). When you talk to the head, are you hearing an authentic voice or are s/he and the staff lip-syncing to a corporate script?
Find out who owns the school you’re interested in. If it’s recently been acquired by a private firm and staff turnover is high, is this a praiseworthy attempt to shift dead wood, or a series of protest resignations? Don’t rule it out on that account, especially if the place meets all your requirements. But caveat emptor - if you can.