US private education firm approved for free schools

By Sean Coughlan
BBC News education correspondent

  • Published
Kings House, site of the new free school
Image caption,
The first wave of free schools opened this autumn - with plans for more to follow

A US private education firm's UK arm has been officially approved to sell services to groups setting up free schools and academies in England.

Edison Learning, a for-profit education business, has been given approved status by the Department for Education.

It will be part of a group of approved suppliers which can provide education, contractual and legal services in setting up free schools and academies.

The firm says it wants to support schools' "ambitions and aspirations".

In the United States, Edison Learning is a major for-profit education business, managing schools in the state system, independent charter schools and also online "virtual" charter schools.

Specialist advisers

The UK arm of the company announced on Wednesday that it had become part of the Department for Education's "framework" of suppliers, which can provide support and advice services to groups setting up free schools or seeking sponsored academy status.

A Department for Education spokeswoman said: "Schools are under no obligation to use these suppliers, all of whom went through a tender process to get on the framework."

There are 12 approved providers in two areas - "project management", such as advice on legal and financial issues and transfer of staff, and "educational services", which includes school policy, curriculum advice and staff recruitment.

Edison Learning is one of a smaller group approved to supply both these areas, with the aim of supporting groups through processes of the "pre-opening" phase.

Such an approved list is intended to speed up the process by offering pre-selected specialist advisers.

The Department for Education suggests that it can mean the difference between time scales of four weeks with such a "framework" supplier compared with up to six months for non-approved suppliers.

Free schools and academies are independent state schools, operating outside the local authority system.

Tim Nash, director of Edison Learning, said the company already had partnerships with more than 80 schools in the UK - and that it sold support services in the same way that publishers provided text books or technology firms provided computers.

Mr Nash said that if the "opportunity arose" the firm might want to manage schools - but that the boundaries around running state schools for profit had been made clear.

But he said that the firm was interested in setting up its own charitable body.

The challenge was about raising achievement and supporting schools, regardless of their status, he said.

"How do we help state education to be as good as it can possibly get? It doesn't matter whether we're talking about a local authority school, academy or free school."

In previous years, as Edison Schools and before that the Edison Project, the firm had been controversial, particularly with teachers' unions, for its plans to sell private education services to public sector schools in the UK.

For several years it managed a school in north London, which has since become an academy, run by an academy trust.

"Every child gets just one opportunity of a great education, and it is our job to ensure that any new academy or school we work with delivers exactly that," says Mr Nash.

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