Handing schools over to private sector would be a mistake
Children's lives are already full of commercial messaging without bringing those pressures into for-profit schools that are removed from state control - says think-tank.
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 in the United Kingdom. Both Policy Exchange and the Insitute 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 British Deputy prime Minister Nick Clegg, but it seems likely that proposals will be included in the next Conservative Party election manifesto.
But what evidence is there that bringing in the private sector will improve school standards? Proponents of for-profit schools argue that they will raise standards 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 American states and Chile have experimented at scale with commercial providers of publicly-funded schools. Among those cases, the performance of commercial providers is at best mixed. In some areas of the United States, studies show for-profit providers making little difference to pupil test scores compared to not-for-profit providers, 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 outperform for-profit free schools.
Proponents in the UK 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. This competition from the private sector helps to improve standards by putting pressure on other schools to improve.
However, the evidence for the benefits of competition in education is not strong. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development'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".
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 not-for-profit organisations willing to run academies and free schools. Whatever we think of the free-schools programme, these organisations are growing successfully without a profit motive.
There are, therefore, strong arguments in principle for keeping schools within the public realm – to be run exclusively in the public interest. Schools have multiple and complex objectives, which it is hard to contract out to a private provider to deliver in the same way that one might - for instance - contract a company to collect the bins on time. Good schooling also depends on strong relationships between teachers, parents and young people. Parents want to be able to trust that they always put the interests of their children, rather than private shareholders, first.
Finally, schools impart values to young people: children's lives are already full enough with commercial messaging without bringing those pressures into schools. If we want schools to teach children about the value of public service, they themselves need to be run in the public interest. In all advanced economies, education systems are undergoing change and renewal - often at a rapid pace. In this context, we need to continue the drive to raise standards and promote innovation in our schools. But we need the right reforms. There are no empirical, theoretical or normative grounds for handing schools over to the private sector.