For-profit schools: some evidence of why I’m far from convinced

by Stephen Tall on June 29, 2014

student_ipad_school - 175Labour’s shadow education secretary, Tristram Hunt, this week called on Michael Gove to rule out profit-making schools, arguing “Beyond 2015, whether it admits it or not, the Conservative Party intends to introduce the profit motive into English education”.

The Tories have sidestepped the issue and instead invited Labour to turn its fire on the Lib Dems: they claim that Nick Clegg’s advisers Julian Astle and Richard Reeves were behind-the-scenes cheerleaders for profit-making schools. The mercurial Dominic Cummings, Gove’s former special adviser, has made the same allegation. This may very well be Tory mischief-making, we don’t know.

We do know, though, that Lib Dem MP Jeremy Browne has publicly embraced the idea – his book, Race Plan, advocates for-profit education providers entering the state sector:

“many aspects of state-funded education are already provided by suppliers that make a profit [exam boards, text book publishers, building contractors etc] … so there is no great principle at stake about profits being made when education providers are paid using public money … so long as they are delivering a high quality service free at the point of use.”

It’s a valid point. Those who say that profit has no place in schools rarely extend the logic of their argument to argue for the nationalisation of Pearsons or Balfour Beatty or Apple, yet all make profit from their work in schools.

The aim of those like Jeremy who argue for profit-making schools is not disreputable: they want to ensure pupils in poor areas have the chance to attend good schools and reckon that’s more likely to happen if that’s backed up by a financial incentive. I can see the logic. So why am I not persuaded?

My scepticism is based on a report just published by the Nuffield Foundation, Quality and Inequality, authored by academics from Oxford University. This report tries to answer the question: Do three- and four-year-olds in deprived areas experience lower quality early years provision? Here are its headline findings:

    1) Private and voluntary (not-for-profit) nurseries and preschools catering for disadvantaged areas and children are lower quality than those serving more advantaged areas and children;

    2) The reverse is true, however, in state-maintained schools – the quality for three- and four-year-olds was equally as good and sometimes even better in disadvantaged areas.

Our findings suggest that government-maintained schools are doing a good job in meeting the needs of the most vulnerable children. … However, the maintained sector cannot provide for all disadvantaged children; and recent data suggest that just under 30 per cent of three- and four-year-olds living in the most deprived areas and receiving funded early education, do so within the PVI [Private, Voluntary and Independent] sector. Our findings suggest that these children are losing out.

Within our sample, quality was lower in PVI settings located in deprived areas, with more disadvantaged user-bases, and attended by individual children living in disadvantaged areas; and it was lower largely in the dimensions of quality which we know to be most important for children’s development – the quality of interactions, and support for children’s language and learning.

Most worrying is the fact that the quality gap between PVI settings serving the least and the most disadvantaged was largest in relation to the quality of support for communication, language and literacy. A clear gradient was evident, with quality decreasing as deprivation increases. This may reflect the challenges inherent in providing for children who are more at risk of language delays or behavioural problems, or who speak English as a second language.

However, it does not change the nature of the problem: that the PVI sector is not effectively rising to this challenge and offering comparable quality for disadvantaged children. Given that we know the outcomes gap between children from low-income families and their better-off peers is not reducing; and that it is particularly evident in relation to language and communication skills, these findings are of serious concern.

“These findings are of serious concern” – that last line bears repeating. This report is, it’s true, specific to the early years sector. We cannot automatically assume that children would also lose out at profit-making primary and secondary schools. Perhaps such schools would prove better able to serve the most disadvantaged communities than their counterparts in early years. However, this evidence from early years means I am less than starry-eyed about the idea profit-making schools are the answer for pupils in disadvantaged communities.

One other point… The report is clear that the biggest single explanation for the better quality of government-maintained provision was having better-qualified staff – employing a graduate makes the most difference to the quality of provision:

The findings suggest that having a graduate on the staff team may help settings to maintain overall quality standards; to support communication and language; to meet children’s individual learning needs; and to provide for children and families from different backgrounds, even in areas where there is great diversity. Given that all government-maintained provision is graduate led, this is likely to play a significant part in the ability of schools to maintain quality standards when catering for disadvantaged children.

We should be careful about reading directly across from early years to schools, but again this evidence suggests the Lib Dem insistence (in the face of Conservative opposition) that teachers should have a professional qualification has a pretty reasonable basis.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.

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