Virtual Schools

Matthew Bennett

 Wey Education PLC is proposing ‘one of the most significant and exciting innovations within state education for a generation’. This is the Wey ecademy, ‘England’s first state online school’. According to the ‘trading update’ in the company’s latest report on results,

the ‘virtual’ school will be able to offer a wider curriculum than any traditional ‘bricks and mortar’ school, and will offer full access to all applicants irrespective of their background, postcode, social situation, beliefs or previous experience within education.

The virtual school, an interesting feature of American public education, may soon arrive in England – subject to approval by the DfE.

Wey Education is one of the smaller players in the English education market. Until 2012, the company was headed by a former chair of Ofsted, the ‘social entrepreneur’ Zenna Atkins. In 2010, Atkins quit Ofsted to become chief executive of the UK, Europe and Africa arm of Gems Education, a international ‘edu-business’ based in Dubai (Gems stands for Global Education Management Systems). She lasted seven weeks. Her next move was to set up her own edu-business, Zail Enterprises, providing consultancy services to schools. Zail was taken over by Wey Education in March 2011; Atkins moved on at the end of December 2012, though she still owns 10 per cent of the company.

David Massie, Wey’s company secretary and largest shareholder, is not a social entrepreneur. He is CEO of IAF Capital Limited, a ‘corporate finance and investment management firm’. In 2011, on admission to the stock market, Wey announced that the ‘new political environment’ would lead to ‘increased opportunities for private sector companies to manage and run state-funded schools at all levels’. The aim, naturally, is to achieve ‘long term profitability and a return to shareholders’.

Under Massie’s guidance, Wey Education sought to move beyond consultancy and acquire some schools of its own. To this end, they set up the non-profit Wey Education Schools Trust, with a retired headteacher, Dame Erica Pienaar, at the helm. As company reports point out, with refreshing frankness, ‘the private sector will have the opportunity to enter this market by providing services as a contracted school operator on behalf of a charity.’ Wey is following the example set by much bigger competitors, like the US company EdisonLearning (the Collaborative Academies Trust), the Swedish company Kunskapsskolan (the Learning Schools Trust) and, indeed, Gems Education (Gems Learning Trust). But WEST academies have a unique selling point: ‘an innovative use of e-learning approaches’. Now Wey is hoping to launch the first fully online state school, catering for 10 to 19-year-olds.

Virtual schools originated in America. They are part of the charter school movement which is opening up American public education to profit-making companies (charter schools were the model for New Labour’s academies). The biggest provider of ‘virtual charters’ is a company called K12 Inc. It was founded in 2000 with investment from, among others, Michael Milken – the so-called ‘junk bond king’ of the heroic age of financialisation. Milken’s Wall Street career had ended abruptly ten years earlier, when he was indicted for racketeering and fraud. After getting out of jail, he became interested in schools. He set up K12 Inc with another Wall Street veteran, Ron Packard. By 2012, according to the American educationalist Diane Ravitch, the company had at least 100,000 students, across 29 states, enrolled in its for-profit virtual schools. In Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatisation Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools, Ravitch summarises K12’s way of doing business:

Students who enroll in K12 online schools receive a computer, an internet connection, materials and workbooks. Their parents are their ‘learning coaches’. Teachers work from their homes or other remote locations. Teacher pay is low, less than their counterparts in traditional schools. Some elementary-level teachers manage online classes of 75 children, while some high school teachers may be responsible for more than 250... Teachers are available on the internet or by telephone, and some schedule meetings with students when it is physically possible.

In other words, virtual charters are a crude scam, the educational equivalent of the sub-prime mortgage market. Obama’s education secretary, Arne Duncan, has defended virtual schools: ‘Technology can play a huge role in increasing educational productivity.’ But, after the New York Times investigated K12’s operations in 2011, Wall Street got jittery; according to Ravitch, the company’s stock price fell by 34 per cent.

Wey Education is waiting for DfE approval for its ecademy scheme. But British business is already involved in the for-profit virtual charter industry. K12’s biggest rival, Connections Academy, is owned by Pearson Education.


  • 16 November 2014 at 7:49am
    streetsj says:
    In other words, virtual charters are a crude scam, the educational equivalent of the sub-prime mortgage market.

    The Conclusion did not follow from the quote; but the analogy may be apt. The sub-prime mortgage market is not a scam. What is a scam is packaging sub-primes and selling them as primes; or worse leveraging especially low quality mortgages to ensure they fail and selling them as prime.

    Why must eschools be a bad thing?

    • 18 November 2014 at 12:17pm
      semitone says: @ streetsj
      I reckon you've answered your own question here. The subprime mortgage market needn't be a scam, in the same sense that e-schooling need not be a bad thing. But in practice the subprime mortgage market was a scam; so e-schools can be fine or not fine depending on whether there is proper oversight and enough knowledge for those buying the product to be confident in its quality.

      As an example: the Australian School of the Air has been, to my mind, unquestionably a good thing. Could e-schools be a bit like that? You bet. Are K12's and Connections' likely to be? You seem to think so, and it would be interesting to hear why.

    • 19 November 2014 at 9:02am
      streetsj says: @ semitone
      Well I don't have a view on K12 or Connections because until I read this blog I'd never heard of either of them. There just seemed to be an automatic assumption that they must eb bad.
      I understand that many readers/bloggers here don't like capitalism and prefer things to be State owned but I think it is wholly wrong to assume that things will be automatically better if State owned.
      I was just reading some comments by the CEO of K12 at the end of October. he said this

      "Now you might say , this is an earnings call, Nate. And the CEO is spending all of his time talking about academic
      performance, and why is that? Because, I've said for 18 months that our focus had to shift to quality. If the quality
      of our product is strong, then we have a great base on which to build a great company. I want K12, it's students, it's
      parents, and especially our Boards, to be proud of our quality. Some didn't hang in here long enough to see this
      quality turnaround, but for all the ones who did, they're now being rewarded. We will get back to growth in our
      core business of Managed Schools, but that growth will be built on quality and a reputation as a great education company"

      Now we don't have to take him at face value but when you set up new businesses it takes time to get thing right and prioritise the right things. There's a lot more stuff about achieved grades in his talk and also a comment that 62% of K12s students are eligible for free or cut price lunches vs 49% for the national average - the achievements seem to be quite creditable.

    • 19 November 2014 at 12:00pm
      semitone says: @ streetsj
      Thanks for this. I also had not heard of K12 before reading this article, and thus I give them no benefit of the doubt. But surely we can all, regardless of ideology, enjoy the irony of the CEO of an education business opining about quality, and saying ... to be proud of our quality".

    • 19 November 2014 at 12:02pm
      semitone says: @ semitone
      ok, the irony is on me there. That should read he wants "it’s students, it’s parents ... to be proud of our quality."

      Nate, my grocer called. He wants his apostrophes back.

    • 19 November 2014 at 5:09pm
      streetsj says: @ semitone
      Sorry to be pedantic but it's a transcript of a conference call so the errant apostrophes are not his.
      I could have made that clear.

  • 17 November 2014 at 8:22pm
    Simon Wood says:
    I know some rather precious parents who have plugged their adopted Chinese daughter into an eschool, where she is doing well. But "She has no friends," they notice.

    Isn't part of education learning from and about other children and ditto teachers with their funny ways

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