Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Social enterprise: a brighter future for schools?

If people on NHS waiting lists are going to be able to be treated privately, as we learnt this morning, will the parents of children where local schools are either oversubscribed or well below National standards be able to do the same?

Last night with a degree of trepidation my husband and I attended St James Independent School for Senior Boys in Twickenham, to hear how our eleven year old Sam, new to the school in September, was getting on. Our Sam is wonderful; full of smiles and enthusiasm, who, as an example, spent last Saturday afternoon walking up and down a freezing Sheen High Street dressed as Sponge Bob Square Pants, handing out leaflets for a car wash that raised £280 for victims of the recent hurricane in the Philippines, a typical act of ebullient selflessness. Sam was also born with profound hearing difficulties which, though now largely behind him, have brought the speech, language, comprehension and fine motor skill developmental delays familiar to the parents of many deaf and partially deaf children. It can make kids erratic, fidgety and a challenge to teach.

Sam has always been full of beans, but his academic success has never matched his potential, until now it seems. He left his last school, a good primary, bouncing along the bottom of the class, which he must have hit with sufficient momentum to propel him to the middle of his new class. Last night his teachers spoke of his enthusiasm and application, his imagination, dedication and success. He has won the Geography prize and been elected to the school council. At one point my husband and I looked at each other thinking the same thing, wow!

We also started to think, why is Sam suddenly doing so well and why can’t every child benefit from what is a first rate education? This brings me to the point of this blog which is that I have wondered for a long time why parents of school age children, particularly those of us in London, have not taken to the streets in protest. I am not in the least bit surprised that some are trying to work (or as the Government has started calling it “game”) the system. What choice do people have? The brutal truth is there for all to see. Some boroughs like mine, Richmond, have great primary schools and some truly awful secondary options. Other boroughs have both primary and secondary schools operating well below national standards. Frankly I know of no parent who feels content that their local state provision is good and easily accessible.

a recent editorial in The Economist we were told that “the government has spent years pushing the notion that parents can choose what schools to send their children to, but house-price premiums (often 20% or more) near good ones effectively restrict access to the better-off.” Only faith groups seem exempt. How is it that faith schools can be selective, sustain standards and be state funded? How can Tiffin School for Boys and Girls in Kingston have a uniquely onerous selection process that sees 95% of applicants rejected and yet also be state funded? Why are parents driven to the extremes of faking residency and religious conviction to get their kids into schools where A’s and B’s are more common than scuffles in the corridors? What is going on?

The truth is parents have no choice at all. Your children go to the school closest to you and that is that. If it’s good then congratulations, you’ve won the lottery. If it isn’t, move. If you can’t move because, like us, you still have children in a good primary school but your local secondary is a war zone then dig deep and get ready to join the growing ranks of us who never meant and really can’t afford to privately educate their children.

Still, I am hopeful. This month
Social Enterprise London is publishing a fascinating report for CfBT on social enterprise and extended services in schools. In conducting the report we found many of extended services offered in schools already being provided by social enterprises. These were “...community focused businesses which trade to address social or environmental need. At their heart is the objective of meeting social challenges whilst achieving financial sustainability – a powerful principle in tough economic times.” We found that schools which harness the unique community focus of social enterprise “develop innovative relationships with the local community,” building stronger links to families and local community groups.

These and other key findings lead us to consider whether the positive impact of social enterprise on extended services could be deepened if schools themselves are created as social enterprises, through governance models such as parent or employee owned cooperatives or borough and community based joint initiatives. I think this is something worth exploring. To this end SEL are planning a conference in the New Year that will look at the report and give a voice more generally to the growing army of parents and social entrepreneurs looking for change, thinking creatively and willing to take responsibility.

I think we now have a once in a generation opportunity to actually tackle the divide between state and private. Why is the latter so often better? I don’t think its facilities. Both of our local state schools, Shene and Christ’s (A Church of England school) have had millions spent on them. Similarly I don’t believe that the quality or commitment of teachers is in any doubt: the staff we met at Shene and Christ’s seemed dedicated and able.

In my view the issue is the degree of parental and thereby child commitment to the school and its ethos that is lacking. It seems to me that in many state schools the bargain being struck is between the school and the child, whereas in a private school it’s between the school and the parents. This makes the child’s complicit behaviour a given and allows the parents to assume the schools commitment to the child’s progress. The parents have to subscribe to the school ethos, not just endure it. Big difference.

Yes, all very well for the middle class and therefore by popular definition pushy, I hear you say, but many of the parents I have met at St James are people for whom the fees are an extraordinary sacrifice, most had not gone to private school themselves. I didn’t meet a single pushy parent, just kind, involved ones dedicated to their children’s progress.

I think a new parent-centred approach to schools could offer hope. I think everyone should be able to send their children to a good school without having to re mortgage, downsize, move, take 2 jobs or rob a bank, even if they live in London. We should all be sending our children to schools that, like St James, take children of mixed ability and achieve 94 % in GCSE grades A to C (as St. James did this year).

I don’t think we should have to move out of London as so many are doing to hunt down a good school, and I don’t think we should demonise parents who are bending the rules to get a good education for their children if the alternative is sending a child to a school where violence and mediocrity have become the established norms. The state needs to take responsibility for those social black spots and offer parents real choice. Perhaps we should be given the budget the state allocates to educating our children, and be allowed to spend it where we choose, pooling resources to establish real community schools. In
the same piece in The Economist they concluded that, “the opposition Conservatives, who are likely to win power next year, have a more constructive idea. Inspired by examples in Sweden, they want to give parents government cash to create and run entirely new schools. It remains to be seen whether those with the energy to game the admissions system are up for the bigger challenge of running a school of their own.”

Of course, an awful lot of parents do not have the luxury of time to be able to devote to taking active responsibility for their children’s schooling and sadly, some children do not have the parents or carers who care enough to bother about the quality of their child’s education, although I think they are fewer in number than is commonly believed. I’m not na├»ve about the depth of these issues, but I’m also optimistic: I passionately believe that the vast majority of children in the UK have parents who care deeply about their schooling (illustrated by the so-called gamers), and that schools which are run as social enterprises, with parents, teachers and local communities in control, will be to the benefit of all children, regardless of their background.

I think given the opportunity by whomever wins the election, parents will jump at the opportunity to enlist social entrepreneurs and community leaders to build schools we can all be proud where our children are safe and can thrive. This isn’t about state versus private; this is about good versus bad.

In the meantime the ON’s will be holidaying in a caravan and doing a DIY Christmas complete with homemade gifts, still all good character building stuff, and after last night I can honestly say, it’s worth it.


  1. why not go one further and not just introduce social enterprise programmes into the school, but make the whole thing a social enterprise using the new Co-op Trust Schools model which is highly acclaimed and backed by all political parties, educational bodies, etc, etc - http://www.school.coop/

  2. Allison,

    I recall SEL being the only social enterprise org which took the trouble to engage with us back in 2004 when what we were doing was less understood and in some quarters, unwelcome.

    A faculty for social enterprise and a social investment fund to propel SE at a national level were prescribed in a atrategy paper we put in front of US government 3 years ago. Unlike the SEIF we ended up with here for the NHS, it included a wide range of endeavour in its scope.

    In its place, USAID planted a new foundation. As you may have read recently they have just appointed a new master after becoming headless at the start of the Obama presidency.

    There may be some connection.

    Marshall Plan Part 2