The case against for-profit schools

There are no empirical grounds for handing state schools over to the private sector.

There are no empirical grounds for handing state schools over to the private sector.

In recent months we have seen a growing clamour from right-of-centre think tanks and conservative commentators for commercial providers to be able to set up and run schools for profit. The latest in a long line of think-tank reports putting the case for for-profit providers is to be published this week.

Proponents argue that commercial education providers 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.

What evidence exists 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. Among those cases, the performance of commercial providers is mixed. In some US states studies show for profits making little difference to pupil test scores compared to not for profits, 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.

The OECD finds no evidence for the claim that private providers produce systematic improvements in school 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 robust accountability, and comprehensive strategies for narrowing attainment gaps between children from different class backgrounds.

It is sometimes alleged 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.

Properly regulated competition can play a role in improving outcomes in public services. Managed competition in the NHS, of the kind pioneered by the former Labour government, has been shown to have improved productivity.

However, the evidence for the benefits of competition in education is not strong. The OECD's analysis of its 2009 PISA results is clear on this point, stating that 'countries that create a more competitive environment in which many schools compete for students do not systematically produce better results.'

A recent LSE study is often cited to prove that competition in education works. It found that the introduction of sponsored of academies in England by the last Labour government was accompanied by improvements in neighbouring schools. This was an important study, which showed Labour's sponsored academies improving at a faster rate than comparable schools. And contrary to recent claims, this held true even when GCSE equivalents were excluded from the data. The study offers good grounds for believing that allowing new providers into the school system can increase innovation and improve outcomes.

What the study does not show is that competition per se generated these improvements. It is just as likely that better results in schools near academies rose because of wider school improvement programme affecting all schools during that period.

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 they do not need either a competitive school environment to raise standards nor a profit motive to expand. England 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. Many are expanding very successfully. There is therefore no strong case for introducing commercial providers on either innovation or competition grounds.

None of this is to say that there should be no role for the private sector in our schools system. Private companies already provide school support and careers services. In England we have seen the enormous growth in the use of private home tutors. A key challenge for policy makers is to ensure that this inevitable rise in parental spending on children's education does not lead to wider inequalities in educational attainment. For example, this could include allowing pupil premium funding to be used to pay for more one to one tuition for disadvantaged pupils provided by the private sector.

In all advanced economies, education systems are undergoing change and renewal, often at a rapid pace. Standing against reform is reactionary, not progressive. But we need the right reform. Schools themselves should not be run for profit. They are civic institutions at the heart of the public realm. Parents want to be able to trust that they always put the interests of their children first. There are no empirical, theoretical or normative grounds for handing them over to the private sector.

Rick Muir is Associate Director at IPPR

Rick Muir is director of the Police Foundation

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.