For-profit schools would not raise standards

There is no significant evidence for the benefits of competition in education.

In recent months, we have seen a growing clamour from right-of-centre think-tanks for private companies to be able to set up free schools.  Both Policy Exchange and the Institute of Economic Affairs 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.

And yet the evidence behind these claims is weak. Proponents of for-profit schools argue that they will raise standards in our schools more rapidly than the existing mix of charitable and mainstream state schools. However, an IPPR report to be published this week shows that this evidence is limited to a small number of cases: among developed countries only Sweden, some US states and Chile have experimented at scale with commercial providers of publicly funded schools.  In the United States, the performance of commercial providers is at best mixed. 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 appear to out perform local authority schools, much of this difference disappears once you take into account pupil’s prior attainment.

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. Competition drives out weak providers and allows good ones to flourish and competition works best when private rewards are at stake. 

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."

Rather, the OECD finds that the most important factors in raising educational standards are the quality of teaching, high levels of school autonomy coupled with strong accountability, and comprehensive strategies for narrowing attainment gaps between children from richer and poorer backgrounds. 

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 non-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 is therefore no strong case for introducing commercial providers on either innovation or competition grounds.

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 example, contract a company to collect the bins on time.  Schools exist to teach basic skills, knowledge and understanding, to prepare young people for the world of work, to enable personal fulfilment through the enjoyment of learning and to help young people becoming active citizens. While you could contract a private company to improve children’s exam results that is not the only outcome we want our schools to achieve.   

The introduction of the profit motive would also very likely undermine trust. Good schooling depends on strong relationships between teachers, parents and young people. Those relationships would likely be undermined if parents knew that a school’s management had one eye on their children’s welfare while having another eye on their profit margin. 

Finally, schools inculcate values and send out important messages to children. We want schools to encourage children to be good citizens, to respect their neighbours, to look after other people, to participate to some degree in public affairs.  If schools were run for profit they would send out an altogether different set of signals about what is important in life. If schools are to teach young people the value of public service, they themselves must 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.

Education Secretary Michael Gove has suggested for-profit schools could be established in the future. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rick Muir is director of the Police Foundation

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear