Taking the reins

22nd March 2013 at 00:00
The argument for academy chains taking over underperforming schools is gaining momentum. But mergers and acquisitions can go wrong, as often happens in the world of business. The lesson is that one size does not fit all, Laura McInerney writes

As arguments in favour of increasing school autonomy gain traction around the world - certainly in developed countries - the idea that a successful school ought to be able to take over an underperforming one is following suit. Furthermore, the notion that not-for-profit or for-profit corporations should be allowed to swoop in and absorb the management of schools that are judged to be failing is also becoming more popular.

But a takeover really isn't a straightforward process, and we need to learn from the business world and its extensive experience of merging organisations if we are to make the idea work in education.

The theory of "academy takeovers" in England is simple: if a local authority school is failing, it makes sense to bring in a successful academy chain to run it instead. Groups such as E-Act and the Academies Enterprise Trust (AET) run 31 and 64 schools, respectively, and want to expand further. But a survey by consultant KPMG showed that 83 per cent of mergers and acquisitions in the business world failed to achieve the expected growth in value, so why should schools be any different?

Some people will point to the achievements of academy chains already growing rapidly in England. The Croydon-based Harris Federation comprises 19 primary and secondary academies in and around London, and 82 per cent of those are rated as outstanding (compared with a national rate of 20 per cent). Given such success, it is little wonder that Harris has been predicted to take over nearby Roke Primary and Nursery School, which is improving after being placed in special measures. But simply because Harris has successfully run other schools in the past, it won't necessarily succeed when taking over another.

A classic business example shows what can go wrong during a takeover. The Quaker Oats Company owned US sports drink brand Gatorade for many years. Given its success with the brand, Quaker decided to buy well-known US drink Snapple. So confident were Quaker bosses of their ability to sell drinks that they ignored warnings about differences between the products, only to wipe $1.4 billion of value from the Snapple brand in just over two years. But how? How could a company so experienced in selling soft drinks fail to sell what was essentially just another soft drink? Quite straightforwardly: it underestimated the products' essential differences.

In the same vein, people commonly think that all schools are identical. In some ways, they are correct. All involve children, teachers, curricula and tests. But there are many subtle differences, too - demographics, the building layout, the availability of excellent teachers in the local labour market - and each variation means that stock solutions for school improvement won't work. In the case of Quaker, bosses assumed that because Snapple was a soft drink like Gatorade, it could be sold in the same way - through supermarkets and warehouses. But Snapple comes in a glass bottle. It's heavy to carry. Few people would want to buy a 10-pack of Snapple at the supermarket because it would be hard work carrying it to the car. Similarly, woe betide the school leader who unthinkingly implements an expensive uniform "because it worked in my last school", only to find that the parents can't keep up and all too soon children are walking around with ripped blazers and greying shirts.

Sceptics will reply that children are not soft drinks and this is therefore a spurious example. It is precisely because children are more complicated than soft drinks that we need think carefully about the suitability of "one size fits all" academy chain approaches. But if Snapple doesn't serve as an adequate warning, perhaps the failure of Kipp's Cole College will.

Give and takeover

The Kipp (Knowledge Is Power Program) academy-style chain in the US, much loved by UK education secretary Michael Gove and considered a template for UK free schools, nowadays sticks solely to opening new schools. Its only foray into takeovers started and ended at Cole Middle School in Denver. In 2005, Kipp took over the school, changed its name to Cole College Prep and implemented its famously meticulous programme for ensuring that all students achieve academically.

Although Kipp appeared to make relatively quick progress with test scores, the cultural differences between what the school staff, the local community and Kipp wanted became insurmountable: two principals quickly came and went, teacher turnover rocketed and local people protested. No matter how well the model worked elsewhere, it failed when used for a takeover and in 2009 the school closed.

Kipp is not alone in its difficulties: other states in the US have tried a variety of takeover strategies, yet fewer than a quarter of failing schools have ever improved. Here in the UK the idea is yet to be tested. The highly successful Mossbourne Community Academy in East London is sometimes touted as having taken over from the much-maligned Hackney Downs School, but almost a decade passed between the closing of one and the opening of the other. It was not a turnaround, it was a completely new school. And although groups such as AET are operating an array of schools - many of which have been taken on because they were failing - the newness of AET means that there is limited evidence that its work will be any more effective than previous school improvement efforts.

But let us not abandon hope entirely, for corporate takeovers have sometimes brought brilliant successes, not least Disney Pixar (which produced the film Wall-E) and Santander (10 points for anyone who remembers the two original banks). The key to success lies in remembering that the central aim of a takeover must be to fully realise the value of the organisation being acquired.

In the case of Quaker, if those in charge had concentrated on making Snapple the best product of its kind, rather than replicating a success strategy, a fortune could have been made. In fact, the subsequent owners of the brand in a few years replaced and added to the value that Quaker had wiped.

Likewise, if an academy chain is to become great at takeovers it will be because it perfects a manner of working with individual cases to realise their own value, as opposed to an imposition of top-down values. Those in charge at Kipp decided they didn't want the hassle of developing diverse products, so they pulled out. Only time will tell if UK academy chains are more resilient. If they are, most takeovers will succeed. If they're not, it won't just be the economy in need of a plan B.

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