A brilliant BrightBlue idea: yet another right-wing think-tank promotes for-profit schools

Janet Downs's picture
A Conservative think-tank proposes for-profit schools, the Independent revealed today. It’s not the first right-wing think-tank to push this line.  Policy Exchange has done it, even getting Gove's approval before the last election. So has the Adam Smith Institute. BrightBlue is just the latest. No doubt there’ll be more before the election – softening up the voters to view private sector companies running public services in a positive light.

So what does BrightBlue advocate? According to the Independent it recommends allowing private companies to manage schools for profit. It cites evidence from the US, Chile and Sweden. But a review of the evidence from the US, Chile and Sweden found that the evidence linking market forces with educational outcomes is “fragmented and “inconclusive”*. In Chile, students have been rioting for over a year against Chile’s education system which was privatised during General Pinochet’s dictatorship. And in Sweden the government has announced an inquiry into the motivation of the firms that run Sweden’s for-profit schools. The Swedish State Secretary for Education told the BBC he was concerned about potential conflict of interest between children’s educational needs and shareholders’ expectations.

As Sam Freedman, special adviser to Education Secretary Michael Gove, said: these firms “are not interested for altruistic reasons. It's an investment."

When market forces are introduced into education, equity is at risk. This was one of the concerns voiced by the National Audit Office (NAO)** in its report on private sector delivery of public services. Private provision could bring efficiency but it doesn’t “naturally provide universal services or equity of provision,” the NAO said.

What else does BrightBlue suggest? It recommends keeping pupils back until they’ve reached a particular standard. But evidence from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) found that overall performance tended to be lower in countries where students repeated grades.  Social background also had “a stronger impact on learning outcomes" when pupils were expected to stay down.

The bottom line is that private companies can make a lot of money from public sector provision and diverting taxpayers’ money into shareholders’ pockets. Margaret Hodge, chair of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), said there were huge pressures to reduce costs but feared “due diligence” was missing when public sector provision was contracted to the private sector. And Philip Hammond, Defence minister, said the G4S Olympic fiasco demonstrated that private firms are not suited to providing many public services.

*See faq above Do market forces in education increase achievement and efficiency?

** See faq above What risks did the NAO describe in its report about delivering public services through markets?

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