What's wrong with making a profit from education? This is what was said...

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14 November 2014 by ATL
“We don’t want Serco exam factories” said Rick Muir, associated director of IPPR and a panelist at yesterday’s ATL debate on the role of profit in schools. This was the first in five debates ATL will be holding as part of their varied #ShapeEducation discussions, and on this occasion I was the chair.

Muir quickly pointed out that this wasn’t a bash at Serco; it applied equally to other companies who also make profit from offering services previously provided by the state.

It’s a tough premise to fight against. No one likes exams. Few people love factories. But Gabriel Heller Sahlgren, Director of Research at the Centre of Market Reform, is tough – and he likes a fight.

“If a for-profit provider can offer a service at least as good as it is currently provided by the state, and do it at a cheaper cost this is a good thing. They can make the profit, and we can then tax that profit”, he said.

For a man who had just said that services should be efficient and corporations taxed – there were surprisingly stony faces in the crowd.

The problem is that arguing to allow profit in education sounds to many people like you are saying that rich people should get richer while poor children get less money into their schools. But Heller Sahlgren vigorously pointed out that this didn’t have to be the case – the profits could be regulated, and the taxes raised could go directly back into helping the most vulnerable in society.

Martin Johnson, ex-deputy general secretary of ATL and author of the publication Schools Not For Sale, pointed out that this wasn’t just about profits though – it was about community. When for-profits are involved in school it can mean that the interests of local people, which ought to be at the forefront of educators’ minds are frozen out, they fall next in line to profit.

Furthermore, Johnson said, segregation is greater in countries where there is a profit motive. The debate (okay, mostly me as the chair) failed to get into the issue too deeply as it was in danger of becoming a match of “whose research is most grand sounding”, but it is something that comes up often in this discussion.

Even the most hard-nosed economists – in fact, especially them – must agree that when there is a profit motive it makes sense to focus on the cheapest students to educate, and so schools chase those quick wins.

Not one to be cowed Sahlgren again said he would not want to see an unregulated cash-for-anyone-who-can-grab-it system. In fact, he believed firmly in a lottery system for selection, precisely to avoid this sort of activity.

“But why not have a trial!” he said – if it works then for-profits can expand, and if not then the market zealots would have to pipe down.
Rick Muir was having none of it. “I don’t want a trial because I don’t want to live in a country where for-profit education exists at all.”

From Muir’s perspective communities have a responsibility to educate children, and the service should be paid for by the state. This doesn’t mean that there can’t be innovation – as the free schools, which are state-funded, have happily shown. But it does mean a profit motive is unnecessary.

Martin Johnson also noted that profit-making is already happening in some schools. He alluded to companies such as IES, a for-profit company contracted to manage a Suffolk Free School (which recently received an ‘inadequate’ rating from Ofsted).

He also named academy trusts who purchased expensive materials from the schools’ founders. “How can it cost £100,000 to buy a curriculum you have already created? All it took was attaching it to an email and sending it to the school!”

Brilliant interjections from the crowd helped keep the panelists on their toes. ATL President Mark Baker asked the perfectly formed question “But where does the profit come from?”, while Julian Gravatt from the Association of Colleges pointed out that for-profits happily exist in further and higher education – so why the squeamishness?

As the clock ticked towards full-time, panelists summarized their final thoughts. Johnson wanted schools accountable to local people; Heller Sahlgren wants a market so people can’t speak up still have choices; and Muir begged that we retain intrinsic motivation in our schools.

But on one thing all were agreed – no one likes the sound of exam factories. How we should avoid them, though, is a matter needing more debate.

Laura McInerney chaired the first #ShapeEducation debate 'What's wrong with making a profit from education?' in London on Wednesday 12 November 2014.

Laura taught in East London for six years and is now deputy editor of new newspaper Academies Week and regular columnist for The Guardian. She has also written for LKMCo, the TES, the New Statesman and Edapt.

Missed the debate? Take a look at our Twitter round up on Storify.

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