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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Show comments
  • paul

    What a load of sociological rubbish, even the language you employ is complete nonsense: longitudical evidence data, cross country comparisons, its all crap.

    The only evidence that we need is that britain is falling down a global league table,Why?

    Its because people like you are using children in an experiment.An experiment that has failed. Education is a service no more no less, and as such the best people to make that choice is the consumers and in this case parents,on behalfof their children.

    They are the peoplebest left to decide the typeof education that they feel will be in the best interests of their own children. It is far too important to be left to sociologists,economists and government know alls.

    Therefore, if a parent decides that a profit making school will give their children the best education,as rational consumers that will be the most effective way to allocate resources.

  • J.B. Stanfield

    I agree with Rick. Lets put these arguments of honest principle to the public. Should parents have the right to choose the nature and form of education which their children receive? Yes or No.

  • Fergus Pickering

    I’m sure you don’t want to read all this right-wing stuff from wicked people, Mr Muir, so let me summarise for you. We curse and anathematise you and all your works, O Satan! Even more briefly: Eff off, you useless tosser. I think that says it all.

  • The Crunge

    No surprises here, the liberal left equates profit with satanic evil and will never even entertain the possibility that this proposal might have merit.

  • http://prodicus.blogspot.com/ Prodicus

    “Young and Sahlgren’s arguments against my ‘ideological position’ are of course in themselves highly ideological. Rather than accuse opponents of ideology,…”

    Eh?

    Must try harder.

  • Paul

    “The reason centre-right politicians, if not commentators, are wary of doing this is because they know that the public don’t buy it.”
    Even if I didn’t already, the sheer arrogance of this closing sentence makes me back Toby Young and Michael Gove.

  • Mark M

    “I believe in a strong public realm in which actors are motivated by and key social institutions embody an ethos of public service”
    You can believe in that all you like, it doesn’t exist. Teachers are highly unionised leeches of taxpayer money, both in their pay and their cushy gold-plated pensions. If you think there is an ethos of public service, why do we have to worry about teacher strikes every time their pay comes udner review? You believe competition won’t work, but I think we’ve tested to destruction the idea that the national monopoly can deliver effective schooling. When teachers are never fired but merely reassigned, when bureaucrats and not parents choose the school to send the child to, when the government and not the wider world chooses what subjects are to be taught, you end up in the situation we have now where school leavers are unable to get a job because they either cannot read, write, or add up (sometimes all three) and universities have to offer remedial courses to get students up to the basic requirements of the courses they offer.
    The question is not ‘will for-profit schools make things better?’, it should be ‘how can they possibly make things any worse?’

  • Bruce Finch

    I have not read either paper but the central point Muir appears to make which is that only the public sector can deliver relationships of trust and import a relationship based on trust and values is nonsense. Having worked for a long time in the public sector and now delivering private sector change programmes for global companies often the public sector is overmanned, and inefficient and the “ethos” he talks about can be a cover for professional laziness and lack of rigour. It’s usually about leadership, somethng the public sector is not noted for outside Defence. Muir appears to make a typical left wing arument about the “purity” of the public sector v the private sector advanced by the nutters who write for the Guardian but unrecognisable to may who have worked in it.

  • IRISHBOY

    Many here have made all the excellent arguments against Rick, who certainly has learnt well that especially self-righteous tone of the Left, but on a more general ideological level, why is it that Socialists insist on only using other people’s money? If being a Socialist is so bloody wonderful and popular and better than the other ways available, why don’t they start what could be called voluntary socialism? They could form something based on the model of the old Friendly Society where members contributed to the costs, and were any of that awful profit made, it could be paid back as dividends. Others, the non-socialists would be free to run their societies, schools hospitals etc. as they themselves agreed, and without interference from the socialists, which strikes me as the very embodiment of a diversity agenda! Of course voluntary socialism will never take off, because it’s not about equality, fairness or diversity. It’s about, and only about, totalitarianism and this should be thrown in the face of the arrogant presumptuous evil Left day in day out.

    • Nicholas

      Most of the well known champions of socialism given voice in our society are very wealthy but denounce others for being so and prefer to lecture on the evils of capitalism whilst exploiting them for their own self-serving ends. The fake charities, quangos and think tanks are perfect homes for these characters, providing a lucrative sinecure at someone else’s expense in which they can lecture, nanny, ban and control to their heart’s content. A great wheeze.

      I don’t know why the blatant hypocrisy and soviet behaviour is ignored by the media and not ruthlessly lampooned in the way it deserves to be. Do we really want to be turned into East Germany? Apparently so, according to the BBC.

    • Sweetpea

      A lovely idea. But don’t we already have this? Parents can choose to send their children to a private school (some 7% of British children attend private schools) and people can choose to pay for private medical care (again, a minority of people do). While it is possible that there are more people who would pursue these choices if they could afford to so do, the vast majority of UK citizens prefer these services to be provided by the state. You have chosen to call them “voluntary socialists”; this is unfortunate – many of them are likely to be moderate conservatives.

      • IRISHBOY

        My point is that it is only the profits and taxes from the private sector which pay for monolithic socialism and in this day and age when the richest and the poorest are equally adept at scouring the internet for the best deal on many things they want in life, it is no longer fair that that the Government confiscates an unacceptable percentage of personal income, wastes half of it, and its services are provided on a “you’ll get what you’re given” basis. That they take so much without any contractual obligation to its citizens, and with total immunity from the rules they impose on the private sector, is an outrage.

      • HJ777

        Most can’t afford private schools and private medical care – not least because the state has already compulsorily taxed them to pay for state-provided services.

        Even if “the vast majority” of UK citizens do prefer these services to be provided by the state (and I’d like to see evidence for that assertion) why does that imply that their will should be imposed on the minority? If the state is going to compulsorily tax them so that everybody has access to such services, why should a minority who don’t want what the state provides not be funded to the same degree to make a different choice? It’s not as if either medical care or education is some sort of natural monopoly, is it?

        • martinvickers

          ” why should a minority who don’t want what the state provides not be funded to the same degree to make a different choice?”

          Democracy, bubbles. Being in the minority means you lost the vote. Dry your eyes.

          Or do i get to opt out of the Bank bailout, the spending on nuclear defence, and the payment of Michael Gove’s salary – all of which I disagree with.

    • martinvickers

      IRISHBOY – To use a quasi-biblical analogy – look at ‘your’ money – whose face is printed there? Who designed the money, created it, issued it. Who backs it, and by their actions legitimates it?

      It amuses to hear the libertarian wing of the right argue against any government interference in the distribution and use of a tender that exists only because of government.

      As a society, we entertain the belief that certain values, certain motives, are more important than any person’s personal profit; and that profit should therefore be subservient to those values – among them, in this country at least are included the education of the young, public safety and defence, and the medical care of the sick. Except among a relatively small idealogical rump, led broadly by Gove and Langley.

      Which is fine, of course, they are entitled to their ideological persuasion, and to make their case. but they don’t make their case – they hide it, because they know the electoral cost if it – and that is what disgusts.

      Well, that and the fact that Gove seems to have demanded the return of the 12 times tables while utterly forgetting the reason for that particular practice in the first place – a broadly duodecimal imperial system that all but disappeared. His call for the return degenerates from a supposed return to a gold standard of knowledge to what it really is – Government by Nostalgia of the Nerds. Darkly comic, as well as tragic.

    • martinvickers

      IRISHBOY – To use a quasi-biblical analogy – look at ‘your’ money – whose face is printed there? Who designed the money, created it, issued it. Who backs it, and by their actions legitimates it?

      It amuses to hear the libertarian wing of the right argue against any government interference in the distribution and use of a tender that exists only because of government.

      As a society, we entertain the belief that certain values, certain motives, are more important than any person’s personal profit; and that profit should therefore be subservient to those values – among them, in this country at least are included the education of the young, public safety and defence, and the medical care of the sick. Except among a relatively small idealogical rump, led broadly by Gove and Langley.

      Which is fine, of course, they are entitled to their ideological persuasion, and to make their case. but they don’t make their case – they hide it, because they know the electoral cost if it – and that is what disgusts.

      Well, that and the fact that Gove seems to have demanded the return of the 12 times tables while utterly forgetting the reason for that particular practice in the first place – a broadly duodecimal imperial system that all but disappeared. His call for the return degenerates from a supposed return to a gold standard of knowledge to what it really is – Government by Nostalgia of the Nerds. Darkly comic, as well as tragic.

  • dorothy wilson

    “Rick Muir is Associate Director of IPPR”. As that is Labour’s favourite Think Tank it says it all!

  • http://twitter.com/ianwalkeruk Ian Walker

    Surely there is a simple test that can be applied. For-profit schools which were unattractive to customers (parents) would not make a profit and close.

    One of the very, very important things to get right in a for-profit education system is to ensure that there is an oversupply of available places in a suitable geographic area so that profits are tied to demand. Once you do this, then the well-run schools will expand and grow, and the poorly-run schools will wither and die, or reform.

    Of course, if you make a pigs ear of it (c.f. rail/water privatisation) and make a whole bunch of miniature monopolies, then you’ll get terrible results.

  • Charlie the Chump

    The Left has failed in Education for 50 years, time to try something else. If it works, roll it out, if not try something else.
    We cannot go on as we are, Gove has made a tremendous start but it will take at least 10 years to squeeze out all the ideologically hampered, poorly performing, schools, Heads and Teachers.
    The work continues.

    • markwri86

      In the unlikely event that we eventually have all for profit schools, we will be in the same situation, won’t we? Some for profit schools will perform better than others. Will we then be bemoaning the fact and recommend nationalising them?

  • HJ777

    Rick Muir would have to demonstrate that ALL for-profit schools necessarily are worse than non-profit schools in order to justify parents not having the choice of where to spend state educational funding.

    Otherwise, he cannot say that parents shouldn’t be allowed to choose a particular for-profit school because it just might be better than the non-profit alternative.

  • BigAl

    Why can’t we just have good schools with good teachers and minimum interference by unions and government. You can debate your ideology all you want but keep away from our schools.

    • tele_machus

      Absolutely
      Teachers know how to educate and motivate
      They also understand that there is more to education than the performance reviewed educational markers
      We all want our teachers to be producing good citizens mindful of their fellow man

      • Nicholas

        Then teachers should be prohibited from joining political parties and certainly from being activists for them. Unfortunately “producing good citizens” has been conflated with indoctrinating children in Labour (socialist) ideology. The politics is made clear by the teaching unions who are solidly left wing and boast that they represent a majority of teaching staff. Many of the placards carried in their demonstrations are anti-Tory. Labour has blurred the lines – after all Blair boasted that the Labour party was nothing less than the political wing of the British people as a whole. That boast is you need to know about Labour and their aspirations for a single party state.

  • jsfl

    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.

    Firstly I would point out that such an argument does not specifically view does not explicitly exclude for profit schools. seemingly excludes any and all schools that are not controlled centrally and are relatively free to go about their business as they see fit. As such this debate is seems to be more about power over education than it is about profit from education.

    Furthemore I do not see how theoretically making a profit actually stops a school from adhering to standards and norms (as long as they are set reasonably?) and being part of a holistic model (although my view is that such a model is not desirable). A large profit based cartel could easily provide the sort of standardised holistic model the author desires. Of course it would be no better than a centralised government controlled model.

    In conclusion this sounds more like an ideological aversion to the concept of profit in the mind of the author than anything else.

    Furthermore it sounds like the author wants to impose a one size fits all mediocrity on schools (much as Miliband inferred regarding his 10 year plan for sports) and I say mediocrity because by imposing norms and standards individual establishments cannot innovate and use there own initiative and without that initiative, and dare I say the word this week, competition, centralised inertia sets in holding progress back. Furthermore, in doing so the centralised holistic model likely attracts all sorts of diseconomies of scale which make it make it not only an unwieldy but a costly model.

    Basically schools relatively free of centralised interference will likely be far more flexible and responsive to the needs of their local population simply because decisions would not likely have to go through a centralised decison making process.

    So in conclusion the for profit argument per se is a red herring. The issue here is whether schools should be controlled centrally or not The author clearly thinks they should be controlled centrally. I do not

  • Daniel Maris

    It’s a sterile argument. What is much more important is dealing with the things that really hold back eduational attainment e.g. single parenting, poor nutrition, poor teaching, ill discipline, inadequate resourcing, too large classes, low self esteem, unimaginative curriculum, and absence of a route to paid work. Will free schools address those issues? Very unlikely it seems to me, except to the benefit of some middle class people. However I wouldn’t rule out the profit motive in getting to grips with some of our worst schools. They would probably do better if you offered to them to the private sector on a results paid basis.

    • Andy

      Education is buggered and will remain so unless and until the negative power of the teaching unions is broken, and we loosen the grip the State has on education. Free Schools are an excellent idea and ought to be aggressively pushed forward. We should also make education a voucher system.

      • Daniel Maris

        I too favour a voucher system. It will make a difference and would be better than the Free Schools system which will only benefit the striving middle classes (save them school fees) and religious maniacs (religious schools provided free by the state).

    • alexsandr

      no daniel. the damage is done pre school. Parents who nurture their kids give them a real head start. we need to have good pre-school provision, and decent training of parents on how to play in a way that will make their kids grow. Nothing complicated. cos I managed it!

  • Publius

    “Both authors accuse me of pretending to make an evidence-based argument
    while in reality being ideologically opposed to for profit schools.”

    Judging from your penultimate paragraph it sounds like they’re right about that.

    “But
    my paper explicitly looks at the empirical evidence and makes a
    normative argument.”

    I note that those you criticise are “ideological” whereas you “make a normative argument”.

    “I think schooling ought to be a holistic process”

    And they don’t, right?

    “should be based on relationships of trust”

    And they don’t?

    “and should play a role in
    imparting important norms and values.”

    Code for state brainwashing?

    “For-profit schools cannot deliver
    that kind of education effectively.”

    Free schools, either for-profit or not, might actually offer enough variety to produce independent-minded individuals. You know, that diversity thing. You might even trust the public enough to let those that want it choose grammar schools.

    “I
    believe in a strong public realm”

    Ah yes. State control.

    “in which actors are motivated by and
    key social institutions embody an ethos of public service.”

    Rather circular that, isn’t it? Combined with an ugly sleight of hand again, eliding state control with the noble ring of “public service”.

    I’ll stick with Toby Young thanks.

    • David Ossitt

      Well said Sir.

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