Schools should be run in the public interest

Published on Tuesday, 07 August 2012 12:28
Written by Rick Muir

There have been growing calls from right-of-centre think tanks for private companies to be able to set up free schools

Both Policy Exchange and the IEA have published reports arguing that allowing the private sector in is vital if we are to raise educational standards.  Such moves are opposed by Nick Clegg but it seems likely that proposals will be included in the next Consevative manifesto.

But what evidence is there that bringing in the private sector will improve school standards?  Proponents of for profit schools argue that they will raise standards in our schools more rapidly and consistently than the existing mix of not-for profit academies, free schools or mainstream state schools. However, the evidence for this claim is weak.

In some US states studies show for-profit providers making little difference to pupil test scores compared to not-for-profit providers, while in others they do better. Analysis of the performance of free schools or their equivalents in Sweden and Chile show that not-for-profit free schools out perform for-profit free schools.  In Chile while on the surface commercial schools out-perform local authority schools, this difference is markedly reduced once pupil's prior attainment is taken into account.

Proponents such as Toby Young argue that only commercial education providers have an interest in expanding good schools, because they are driven by the profit motive to do so, whereas not-for-profit and state schools lack this incentive. This competition from the private sector helps to improve standards by putting pressure on other schools to improve.

However, the evidence for the benefits of competition in education is not strong. The OECD's analysis of the performance of international school systems is clear on this point, showing that 'countries that create a more competitive environment in which many schools compete for students do not systematically produce better results.'

There are good reasons why we should want a more diverse range of providers in our school system. They can bring new expertise, energy and innovation into state education. But England already has a vibrant not for profit independent sector and there is no shortage of not for profit organisations willing to run academies and free schools. Whatever one thinks of the free schools programme, these schools are growing successfully without a profit motive.

There are moreover strong arguments in principle for keeping schools within the public realm, run exclusively in the public interest.  Schools have multiple and complex objectives which it is hard to contract a private provider to deliver in the same way that one might, for instance, contract a company to collect the bins on time.  Good schooling also depends on strong relationships between teachers, parents and young people. Parents want to be able to trust that they always put the interests of their children, rather than private shareholders, first. Finally, schools impart values to young people: children's lives are already full enough with commercial messaging without bringing those pressures into schools. If we want schools to teach children about the value of public service they themselves need to be run in the public interest.

Rick Muir is Associate Director at IPPR. IPPR's new report 'Not for Profit. The role of the private sector in England's schools' is published this week.

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