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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Junior doctors’ strikes: the greatest union failure in a generation

The first wave of junior doctor contract impositions began this week. Here’s how the BMA union failed junior doctors.

In Robert Tressell’s novel, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, the author ridicules the notion of work as a virtuous end per se:

“And when you are all dragging out a miserable existence, gasping for breath or dying for want of air, if one of your number suggests smashing a hole in the side of one of the gasometers, you will all fall upon him in the name of law and order.”

Tressell’s characters are subdued and eroded by the daily disgraces of working life; casualised labour, poor working conditions, debt and poverty.

Although the Junior Doctors’ dispute is a far cry from the Edwardian working-poor, the eruption of fervour from Junior Doctors during the dispute channelled similar overtones of dire working standards, systemic abuse, and a spiralling accrual of discontent at the notion of “noble” work as a reward in itself. 

While the days of union activity precipitating governmental collapse are long over, the BMA (British Medical Association) mandate for industrial action occurred in a favourable context that the trade union movement has not witnessed in decades. 

Not only did members vote overwhelmingly for industrial action with the confidence of a wider public, but as a representative of an ostensibly middle-class profession with an irreplaceable skillset, the BMA had the necessary cultural capital to make its case regularly in media print and TV – a privilege routinely denied to almost all other striking workers.

Even the Labour party, which displays parliamentary reluctance in supporting outright strike action, had key members of the leadership join protests in a spectacle inconceivable just a few years earlier under the leadership of “Red Ed”.

Despite these advantageous circumstances, the first wave of contract impositions began this week. The great failures of the BMA are entirely self-inflicted: its deference to conservative narratives, an overestimation of its own method, and woeful ignorance of the difference between a trade dispute and moralising conundrums.

These right-wing discourses have assumed various metamorphoses, but at their core rest charges of immorality and betrayal – to themselves, to the profession, and ultimately to the country. These narratives have been successfully deployed since as far back as the First World War to delegitimise strikes as immoral and “un-British” – something that has remarkably haunted mainstream left-wing and union politics for over 100 years.

Unfortunately, the BMA has inherited this doubt and suspicion. Tellingly, a direct missive from the state machinery that the BMA was “trying to topple the government” helped reinforce the same historic fears of betrayal and unpatriotic behaviour that somehow crossed a sentient threshold.

Often this led to abstract and cynical theorising such as whether doctors would return to work in the face of fantastical terrorist attacks, distracting the BMA from the trade dispute at hand.

In time, with much complicity from the BMA, direct action is slowly substituted for direct inaction with no real purpose and focus ever-shifting from the contract. The health service is superficially lamented as under-resourced and underfunded, yes, but certainly no serious plan or comment on how political factors and ideologies have contributed to its present condition.

There is little to be said by the BMA for how responsibility for welfare provision lay with government rather than individual doctors; virtually nothing on the role of austerity policies; and total silence on how neoliberal policies act as a system of corporate welfare, eliciting government action when in the direct interests of corporatism.

In place of safeguards demanded by the grassroots, there are instead vague quick-fixes. Indeed, there can be no protections for whistleblowers without recourse to definable and tested legal safeguards. There are limited incentives for compliance by employers because of atomised union representation and there can be no exposure of a failing system when workers are treated as passive objects requiring ever-greater regulation.

In many ways, the BMA exists as the archetypal “union for a union’s sake”, whose material and functional interest is largely self-intuitive. The preservation of the union as an entity is an end in itself.

Addressing conflict in a manner consistent with corporate and business frameworks, there remains at all times overarching emphasis on stability (“the BMA is the only union for doctors”), controlled compromise (“this is the best deal we can get”) and appeasement to “greater” interests (“think of the patients”). These are reiterated even when diametrically opposed to its own members or irrelevant to the trade dispute.

With great chutzpah, the BMA often moves from one impasse to the next, framing defeats as somehow in the interests of the membership. Channels of communication between hierarchy and members remain opaque, allowing decisions such as revocation of the democratic mandate for industrial action to be made with frightening informality.

Pointedly, although the BMA often appears to be doing nothing, the hierarchy is in fact continually defining the scope of choice available to members – silence equals facilitation and de facto acceptance of imposition. You don’t get a sense of cumulative unionism ready to inspire its members towards a swift and decisive victory.

The BMA has woefully wasted the potential for direct action. It has encouraged a passive and pessimistic malaise among its remaining membership and presided over the most spectacular failure of union representation in a generation.

Ahmed Wakas Khan is a junior doctor, freelance journalist and editorials lead at The Platform. He tweets @SireAhmed.