Tough love and military manners - for a price
Pupils must stand when an adult enters the classroom. Staff must "meet and greet" parents at the school gate at the beginning and end of each day. And "tough love" has to be administered at all times.
This is life at IES Breckland, a free school in rural Suffolk that is the first in England to be run by a for-profit provider. Breckland is managed by Internationella Engelska Skolan (IES), a Swedish free school company that has quickly become the Scandinavian country's largest independent state school provider.
IES was awarded a #163;21 million contract to run Breckland for 10 years after it won a bidding process led by the charitable trust behind the school, the Sabres Educational Trust. The money pays for the entire running of the school, including teachers' salaries, as well as IES' management fee.
A similar arrangement was in place at Turin Grove School in North London. It was run by US firm Edison, but only under a three-year contract, which has now come to an end.
Contracting private companies to run schools is seen as the final taboo by many, particularly classroom unions, which condemned the decision to permit IES to manage Breckland, viewing it as allowing profit-making companies in "by the back door". Running state schools for profit is forbidden in England, but outsourcing the management of a school to a fee-charging corporation is not. In the case of Breckland, this gives IES the final say over everything from hiring staff to what pupils are taught.
"They are responsible for the whole set-up," said Sherry Zand, IES Breckland's principal. "As in, everything that was needed to get this up and running was up to them. They come along and do the monitoring. They do quality surveys and a quality report - basically like an Ofsted (inspection), but internally.
"And we have to issue surveys to parents, pupils and staff to make sure that we are doing things the way an IES school does."
There is even an IES checklist, which company founder Barbara Bergstrom, who is originally from the US, has compiled to ensure that each school requires pupils to stand when an adult enters the room and that staff are really meeting and greeting parents twice a day.
While the total value of the contract is public, the percentage that IES takes in profit is secret: the company claims that the figure is "commercially sensitive". But as a global business it has a turnover of about #163;60 million with profits of about #163;5 million a year, according to the Adam Smith Institute, a thinktank that promotes free market ideas.
Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, pointed to the fact that IES has recently been bought by US-based private equity fund TA Associates as a reason to be concerned about the firm's involvement in England's schools. "IES is no longer an educational start-up business; it's now part of a global firm that exists to sweat their assets," she said.
"It means TA Associates now has its foot in the door, and should the Conservative Party be re-elected there is every chance they (IES) will try to expand and maximise their profit-making potential, which means taking public money from our schools."
Under the terms of its contract to run Breckland, part of IES' income is based on how full the school is each year, but it is not dependent on exam results. "In terms of the way they are paid, that was agreed with the trust (Sabres Educational Trust)," Ms Zand said. "They had agreed figures depending on how full we are, so it has nothing to do with performance."
Ms Zand took a leap of faith by quitting her job as an English teacher at Matthew Arnold School in Staines to become Breckland's principal designate in February.
The school is located in the building that formerly housed Breckland Middle School, which was closed by the local authority under its county-wide reorganisation from a three-tier schools system to a two-tier system. Until June this year, the school was still under the control of the local authority, so Ms Zand and her staff were not allowed access to the site until just two weeks before the free school was due to open in September.
"I had only been in the school once before we were given the keys in August," Ms Zand said. "What we saw when we were finally given the keys was mind-blowing: there were bins full of unmarked Sats papers and exam booklets that had been burned."
The school had been given no prior data on any of its pupils, forcing staff to dedicate the first week to setting baseline tests just to establish the basic level of every child in each subject.
Despite this, Ms Zand has been set tough targets by IES. The company expects 52 per cent of the current Year 9 cohort to gain five good GCSEs including English and maths, while the pressure quickly rises when it comes to the current Year 7 - 85 per cent of the group are expected to reach the floor target.
"One of our other targets is that 25 per cent of the current Year 9 take the English Baccalaureate subjects and that they get C grades or above in all of them," Ms Zand added. "But we have a whole load of Year 9s who don't know basic French; they don't know the verbs etre and avoir."
Ms Zand is unsure what IES will do if those targets are not met, but the principal can be certain that the tough love IES believes in doesn't just extend to its students.
THE FOR-PROFIT WAY
IES is Sweden's biggest free school provider, with 19 schools in the Scandinavian country educating 13,000 pupils.
It is owned by US-based private equity fund TA Associates, which has 400 current and former portfolio companies and has raised a total of $18 billion (#163;11 billion).
Globally, IES has a turnover of about #163;60 million, with annual profits of about #163;5 million.