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Coffee House

The ideological row over profit-making schools

15 August 2012

3:20 PM

15 August 2012

3:20 PM

Earlier this week IPPR published a paper which made the case against for-profit schools. Two of the leading proponents of such schools, Toby Young and Gabriel Sahlgren, have since responded.

Young accuses me of being ‘an evangelical believer in an ‘evidence-based’ approach to public policy’. He implies at the start of his piece that empirical evidence should play little part in policy development. Confusingly he goes on to set out which types of empirical analysis he values and which he doesn’t. It is unclear from this what role he thinks evidence should play in policymaking.

Young is particularly scathing about the use of cross-national evidence. He is right that we should be wary of looking at the effect of a policy in one country and simply concluding that it would work in another. But this is one of the main points I make in the paper: the evidence on commercial school providers is limited to a small number of cases and we should be careful about drawing hard and fast conclusions.

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Both Young and Sahlgren accuse me of selectivity when looking at the research on the performance of for-profit schools.  Young argues this is the case when I draw attention to methodological problems: on the contrary I make clear that the evidence as a whole is limited, in particular because of the lack of longitudinal pupil-level data. Nor do I dismiss the value of regional studies. In the case of Philadelphia, I simply point out reasons to be cautious about the findings in that particular study.

Sahlgren argues my work is selective while in the same piece selectively picking out studies that he claims support the opposite case. He quotes a Chilean study that shows for-profit chains doing as well as not-for-profit Catholic schools.  But as the author of that paper notes this is likely to be the result of scale.  None of this tit-for-tat quoting of studies back and forth makes any difference to the conclusion of my paper, which neither author directly contests. The evidence on the performance of for profit school provision is mixed: some studies show these schools doing relatively well, in others relatively worse. Proponents of for-profit provision have to do better than this to support the claim that their introduction is essential for raising school standards.

On the impact of competition, Sahlgren quotes some further studies which he claims support his case. But even he recognises that the evidence here is mixed. He says that it is pointless looking at the impact of competition in general because success depends on questions of design. One suspects that he would only be happy if we looked solely at the impact of competition where it works and ignored the cases where it does not.

Both authors accuse me of pretending to make an evidence-based argument while in reality being ideologically opposed to for profit schools. But my paper explicitly looks at the empirical evidence and makes a normative argument. I think schooling ought to be a holistic process, should be based on relationships of trust and should play a role in imparting important norms and values. For-profit schools cannot deliver that kind of education effectively. More widely, unlike my two critics, I believe in a strong public realm in which actors are motivated by and key social institutions embody an ethos of public service.

Young and Sahlgren’s arguments against my ‘ideological position’ are of course in themselves highly ideological. Rather than accuse opponents of ideology, let’s put these arguments, of honest principle, to the public. The reason centre-right politicians, if not commentators, are wary of doing this is because they know that the public don’t buy it.

Rick Muir is Associate Director at IPPR.

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