The evidence is limited to a tiny number of countries where commercial providers operate at scale. In some of these cases for profit providers have performed worse than not for profit competitors, in others they have performed better. Much of the evidence is contested on methodological grounds. This is hardly a convincing case for such a major shift in schools policy.
Moreover, the case in favour of for-profit schools rests on an empirically unverified claim that forcing schools to compete for additional pupils raises educational standards, and therefore that the best way to increase those competitive pressures is to let in profit hungry providers with an incentive to expand. There is very little evidence for this: those countries that have pursued market oriented policies have not been rising up the international education league tables. The OECD has found that those policies have rather tended to increase educational segregation between rich and poor.
This is not to say there is no role for competition between schools. There is strong evidence that competition on reputation grounds between schools, where they are ranked in league tables, pushes schools to ‘up their game’. But this ‘reputational competition’ can occur between non profit providers and is the result of ‘naming and shaming’, not the introduction of a profit motive.
Would the private sector bring about a wave of new innovation into the school system? There is a strong case for allowing new providers into the system, but we have already done this with non profit-making academies. Since the mid 2000s innovation has been successfully driven by entrepreneurial teaching staff keen to try out new pedagogical approaches. It has not required a profit motive to make it happen.
Beyond the empirical evidence, there is a strong in principle case for retaining schools within the public realm. Schools are, and should be, holistic institutions with a wide remit: teaching basic skills, knowledge and understanding, preparing young people for the world of work, inculcating desirable norms and attitudes, and promoting active and responsible citizenship. Profit making providers are likely to be particularly focused on delivering what is measured (exam results) and are likely to park the rest.
Moreover, high quality schooling is a relational and co-productive exercise. The relationships between teachers, parents and children are vital to the learning process and achieving the complicated outcomes we want. For those relationships to flourish, they must be based on trust. If a school’s management has one eye on children’s wellbeing and another on rewarding their shareholders, that trust is likely to be corroded.
Finally, if we want to bring up our young people, as I believe we should, to appreciate that there is more to life than making money, then it is particularly important that schools remain public institutions operated on a non profit basis. Just imagine if every school in your local area was stamped with a commercial logo. Is that the kind of country we want to live in? What kind of message does it send about how we as a society value our young people if they are educated for profit, rather than as an intrinsic good?
There is a role for the private sector in providing services to schools and in delivering supplementary education. But schools themselves should not be run for profit.
Rick was on the panel at the first of ATL's Shape Education pre-election debates, which took place in London on 12 November. Rick Muir is Associate Director for Public Service Reform at IPPR.