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 associate director for public service reform at IPPR.

David Cameron speaks at a press conference following an EU summit in Brussels. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Cameron's EU concessions show that he wants to avoid an illegitimate victory

The Prime Minister is confident of winning but doesn't want the result to be open to challenge. 

Jeremy Corbyn's remarkable surge has distracted attention from what will be the biggest political event of the next 18 months: the EU referendum. But as the new political season begins, it is returning to prominence. In quick succession, two significant changes have been made to the vote, which must be held before the end of 2017 and which most expect next year.

When the Electoral Commission yesterday recommended that the question be changed from “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?” ("Yes"/"No") to "Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?" ("Leave"/"Remain"), No.10 immediately gave way. The Commission had warned that "Whilst voters understood the question in the Bill some campaigners and members of the public feel the wording is not balanced and there was a perception of bias." 

Today, the government will table amendments which reverse its previous refusal to impose a period of "purdah" during the referendum. This would have allowed government departments to continue to publish promotional material relating to the EU throughout the voting period. But after a rebellion by 27 Tory eurosceptics (only Labour's abstention prevented a defeat), ministers have agreed to impose neutrality (with some exemptions for essential business). No taxpayers' money will be spent on ads or mailshots that cast the EU in a positive light. The public accounts commitee had warned that the reverse position would "cast a shadow of doubt over the propriety" of the referendum.

Both changes, then, have one thing in common: David Cameron's desire for the result to be seen as legitimate and unquestionable. The Prime Minister is confident of winning the vote but recognises the danger that his opponents could frame this outcome as "rigged" or "stitched-up". By acceding to their demands, he has made it far harder for them to do so. More concessions are likely to follow. Cameron has yet to agree to allow Conservative ministers to campaign against EU membership (as Harold Wilson did in 1975). Most Tory MPs, however, expect him to do so. He will be mocked and derided as "weak" for doing so. But if the PM can secure a lasting settlement, one that is regarded as legitimate and definitive, it will be more than worth it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.