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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Voters are turning against Brexit but the Lib Dems aren't benefiting

Labour's pro-Brexit stance is not preventing it from winning the support of Remainers. Will that change?

More than a year after the UK voted for Brexit, there has been little sign of buyer's remorse. The public, including around a third of Remainers, are largely of the view that the government should "get on with it".

But as real wages are squeezed (owing to the Brexit-linked inflationary spike) there are tentative signs that the mood is changing. In the event of a second referendum, an Opinium/Observer poll found, 47 per cent would vote Remain, compared to 44 per cent for Leave. Support for a repeat vote is also increasing. Forty one per cent of the public now favour a second referendum (with 48 per cent opposed), compared to 33 per cent last December. 

The Liberal Democrats have made halting Brexit their raison d'être. But as public opinion turns, there is no sign they are benefiting. Since the election, Vince Cable's party has yet to exceed single figures in the polls, scoring a lowly 6 per cent in the Opinium survey (down from 7.4 per cent at the election). 

What accounts for this disparity? After their near-extinction in 2015, the Lib Dems remain either toxic or irrelevant to many voters. Labour, by contrast, despite its pro-Brexit stance, has hoovered up Remainers (55 per cent back Jeremy Corbyn's party). 

In some cases, this reflects voters' other priorities. Remainers are prepared to support Labour on account of the party's stances on austerity, housing and education. Corbyn, meanwhile, is a eurosceptic whose internationalism and pro-migration reputation endear him to EU supporters. Other Remainers rewarded Labour MPs who voted against Article 50, rebelling against the leadership's stance. 

But the trend also partly reflects ignorance. By saying little on the subject of Brexit, Corbyn and Labour allowed Remainers to assume the best. Though there is little evidence that voters will abandon Corbyn over his EU stance, the potential exists.

For this reason, the proposal of a new party will continue to recur. By challenging Labour over Brexit, without the toxicity of Lib Dems, it would sharpen the choice before voters. Though it would not win an election, a new party could force Corbyn to soften his stance on Brexit or to offer a second referendum (mirroring Ukip's effect on the Conservatives).

The greatest problem for the project is that it lacks support where it counts: among MPs. For reasons of tribalism and strategy, there is no emergent "Gang of Four" ready to helm a new party. In the absence of a new convulsion, the UK may turn against Brexit without the anti-Brexiteers benefiting. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.