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Opinion4th September 2014

“That’s perfect – my state has 120,000 schools”: Scale in Education

The poor quality of much education provision in developing countries is a well-rehearsed problem; yet solutions are elusive. Low cost private schools struggle to show that their quality is materially higher than that found in the public system. On the other hand no successful models exist for quality reforms in state education, either. Given this situation, there is increasing interest in a third alternative in which the state invites non-state organisations to manage public schools – an arrangement commonly called a public-private partnership (PPP) for education. In this context, one new venture Ark is exploring is the opportunity to manage such charter-style schools in India.

This interest took me to India last month to visit a range of schools and school operators. And in many ways, the non-state school landscape I found during that visit is an inspiring one. Providers such as Akanksha and Muktangan run excellent schools in which children are engaged and learning. These are the types of organisations who could inject real quality into the Indian education system under PPP arrangements.

Yet the key challenge is that of scale. In India, most non-state school operators have fewer than 20 schools. A few have as many as a thousand – but this is a system of over a million schools. In this context, it is unsurprising that our proposal for a charter-style schools policy received a sceptical response from the Permanent Secretary of one Indian state we visited. “I understand Ark operates 34 schools in the UK. That’s perfect – my state has 120,000 schools”.

So I have been mulling over a question since my return from India. Can a few, small non-state school chains really have an impact in a country with more than a million schools?

[[{“fid”:”2114″,”view_mode”:”default”,”fields”:{“format”:”default”,”field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]”:””,”field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]”:””},”type”:”media”,”link_text”:null,”attributes”:{“height”:146,”width”:220,”style”:”float: right; margin: 8px;”,”class”:”media-element file-default”}}]]I think there are potentially three answers to this question – with different levels of plausibility. The most obvious is that a few small school chains could become many, large ones – such that charter-style schools come to comprise the majority of the system. Unfortunately, there are several problems with this solution. Firstly, to attract a wide range of school operators, governments need investor-friendly policies that may be politically difficult to establish. Secondly, those operators have to expand their school networks without losing the quality found in each school. This can be extremely challenging; in most countries with charter systems, excellent providers co-exist alongside much less impressive ones. Finally, there might be limits on how far any single provider can scale up: few operators worldwide manage more than 50-100 schools. The vision for an education system transformed through many large networks of charter-style schools is therefore at best unproven.

A second answer could be to direct our enquiry at how small beacons of excellence can change the way in which public schools are run. Perhaps we can transfer into the state system the best ideas from non-state innovators? There is a case for this. One great benefit of a PPP is that it can bring a range of different school operators into a system, each of whom develops new solutions to the problems of running great schools in difficult circumstances. In theory these could then be transferred: if we were to operate our own school network in India, it would be run with comparable resources to the public system, so that solutions we find in our schools could plausibly be adopted by state authorities.

When you get under the skin of this idea, however, it’s not clear what it would mean in practice. Does an improved curriculum have impact, if delivered by the same teachers? Can teachers improve their teaching practice without better leadership, incentives or training? Can leaders manage effectively with poor information and assessment tools? How does accountability in the system affect outcomes? Like any sector of the economy, education is an ecosystem in which many parts need to function for the whole to be effective – transferring school-level “best practice” alone is unlikely to lead to change.

So our third and final answer requires us to think about this whole education ecosystem – but how can a small network of schools have impact at that level? Happily, Ark’s experience in the UK suggests a few helpful ideas. A key first step is not to try to change the behaviour of a bureaucracy, but to change its expectations: all children should achieve basic numeracy and literacy; all teachers can teach effectively; all state schools can achieve great results. The next step might be to help create the critical building blocks missing in many countries: services such as effective teacher training systems or standardised assessment tests. For this reason, ARK is setting up an incubator which plans to develop and spin off best practice ideas in these types of areas. The final, most difficult, step is not to try to change how schools are run – micro-managing success – but to change how they are held accountable and the parameters in which they operate. If a public system can start tomanageits school system in the way that the best operators manage their networks, the whole ecosystem can start to shift towards quality.

How do we show governments what can be achieved, and thereby inspire this level of change in the way politicians and administrators think about the best way to run their education systems? A small network of excellent schools, run in partnership with government, on a government budget, could be the perfect place to start. Maybe a network of 34 schools can spark change in 120,000 after all.