(If you are not familiar with Wey Education then please see here)
In my previous article I touched on regulation of the online schools sector. In business it is almost always the case that regulation strengthens the positions of the largest players and increases barriers to entry. In some cases the reduction in customer choice can reduce the size of the market, but in others regulation can legitimise an industry. Accordingly it always looked likely that Wey Education would be a strong beneficiary of regulation.
The response to the government consultation has now been published following delays due to the election and then coronavirus.
It is apparent from the response that the greatest weight has been given to consultation feedback from local authorities and the broader educational sector, with online schools and experienced parents coming a distant 3rd and 4th. This is problematic as is clear that the educational establishment continue to have an instinctive and uninformed repulsion to online schooling, as exemplified by the following feedback:
…the proposed accreditation scheme appears to give DfE’s official approval to online settings that offer full-time education to children. There is a risk that this is perceived as deeming online schools as an equivalent or desirable alternative to mainstream schools. While receiving solely or largely online education may be appropriate in a very limited range of circumstances (for example, on a short-term basis, while a child is ill and unable to attend school), [the respondent is] concerned that it is unlikely to be appropriate for most children. When so little is known about its effectiveness, online schooling must not be encouraged as an easy and low-cost way of educating vulnerable children with complex needs
Receiving all or most of their education online is likely to limit children’s social and cultural development, and may have a negative impact on their mental welfare by isolating them from their
Understandably the Department for Education (DfE, instigators of the consultation and authors of the response) are keep to been seen sympathetic to the view that online schooling should not be anything more than a niche and/or temporary option:
The department acknowledges that broader concerns do exist about online provision in the context of when it is – and is not – an appropriate setting for full-time education. The department does not promote the idea that online provision is a suitable alternative to traditional settings in all cases. However, we are aware of circumstances where an online education is suitable and may represent a child’s best opportunity to receive a full and balanced curriculum. For instance, we are aware of very vulnerable children who are unable to access mainstream education for various reasons including long-term illness, exclusion and bullying. An online provision can deliver significant benefits to these pupils, and in some cases, prepare them for a return to traditional settings.
Despite this the DfE have held mostly firm to the original proposals. They are going ahead with the registration scheme, they have not sought to add further costs or restrictions on providers (beyond originally proposed) and most critically:
accredited providers will…appear on the Get information about schools (GIAS) register of schools
and colleges in England, hosted on GOV.UK and be assigned a unique
reference number (URN) and a DfE number
However, the following change, while perhaps appropriate for those online providers that don’t provide the full school experience, was clearly made under pressure from the educational establishment and is unfortunate for Wey’s InterHigh unit:
▪ change the name of the scheme to the ‘Online Education Accreditation
Scheme’. This is to more accurately reflect the difference between providers
in this sector and traditional school settings. We will therefore avoid the use of
the term ‘school’ altogether and refer instead to ‘online education settings’,
‘online education services’ and ‘online education providers’.
The new scheme will come into force in September with inspections planned from August.
InterHigh stands to benefit significantly from free publicity around the scheme’s introduction, its presence on the GIAS database, and the legitimacy of having a DfE number. The costs of the scheme (direct and indirect) will fall more heavily on their competitors extending Wey’s already significant competitive advantage. More students will receive a superior education.
Given the numbers of children they are failing (even before coronavirus), the educational establishment are right to see online schooling as a threat. And given their increasing size and profile Wey are right to counter this by trying to joining the establishment, even at the cost of losing some educational freedom. Online schooling remains a long way from the mainstream and risks of a backlash remain (perhaps from teacher unions, perhaps over VAT treatment), but Wey increasingly look set on a path of accelerated growth that will continue for many years.