In February, I presented one of several papers on 'Alternative ways of thinking the university' at a conference on Universities in the Knowledge Economy (UNIKE). I was joined by Joss Winn,...
Published in Reclaiming Schools: The Arguments and the Evidence (March 2015)
Late last year, UK Education secretary Nicky Morgan made waves through schools by declaring that while she was ‘clear about the importance of not-for-profit education’, she did not rule out the possibility that schools in Britain might become profit-making enterprises. This ignited new public debates about whether running schools for profit is either ethical or effective. While it is easy to have a position, however, evaluating arguments presented both for and against for-profit learning can be hard. Knowing what profit is, learning to recognise the profit motive in schools and understanding the impacts of profit on education can help guide thinking about this issue.
Schools are run for profit either because this is thought to be more effective than public funding for education, or because they can be harnessed as sources of corporate income. Sometimes these motivations go together, as when corporations are portrayed as public servants who rescue children and communities from ‘failing’ schools and local governments. This is common where governments reduce public education budgets, leave schools with insufficient resources to function and then create policies which allow (or force) schools to be placed under private or corporate control. School voucher programmes in Chile, the Free School project in Sweden, and Charter School movements in the United States all emerged from this logic.
While UK academies and free schools are not presently run for profit, these programmes are also part of this trend and there is reason for concern. This is not because it has been proven that children universally achieve more or less in corporate schools than they do in public ones. Large-scale studies comparing for-profit charter schools, non-profit charters and public schools in the US, for example, have tended to find either small differences or contradictory results. So why, given this lack of definitive evidence of a correlation between profit and failure, should we be critical of privatising learning? And what evidence can opponents of for-profit education draw on to help others understand that there is a problem?
First, for-profit education makes schooling unstable rather than secure. In 2013, for example, the Swedish government was forced to re-evaluate its free schools programme after a large, for-profit corporate chain went bankrupt, sold and closed a number of schools, and left hundreds of children without places. Similarly, teachers, parents, students and members of school boards and civil rights organisations in many cities across the US are fighting the closure of public community schools – sometimes by the dozen simultaneously – whose money is being redirected to fund corporately-run and often selective charter schools.
Second, for-profit education increases social segregation and inequalities. One of the principles underlying systems of both non-profit and for-profit schools is that they must compete in order to attract students, funding and prestige. Research on competitive school systems in Chile, Sweden and the US indicates that such competition can both exacerbate and produce class and racial inequalities, and that for-profit schools have little incentive to prioritise socially just policies in student selection.
Third, many for-profit schools still benefit from the accumulation of public money (through accepting government funding for individual students). Even where ‘free schools’ do not operate for profit, as in the UK, they can serve as hubs for a range of commercial enterprises which are organised through outsourcing work and services, buying in contracts and materials from private companies (including testing companies suchas Edexel), and renting space.
Perhaps the most pressing concern, however, is that the logic of profit itself disfigures learning and teaching and compromises educational relationships. In order to understand this, we must know what ‘for-profit education’ means and what profit really is. Profit is whatever money is left over after I sell something I have paid to produce. In order to profit from an activity, I have to find a way of obtaining more value for something than it is worth. There are only a few ways to accomplish this: I can invest less money, time and resources into creating something; I can work longer and harder to make more things; or I can improve my techniques to become more efficient. One of the easiest ways to understand profit is to think about two words that we have come to know well: ‘value added’. Teachers are often encouraged to work in ways that result in better outcomes than might ordinarily be expected, thus ‘adding value’ to teaching, test scores, relationships and school environments. They are expected to do this whilst relying on a constant or dwindling pool of resources; to dedicate more of their personal time and energy to this cause in order to compensate, to ‘innovate’. The added value that is produced, it is argued, is that students have a special advantage on standardised tests or educational opportunities, teachers gain competitive advantages in professional autonomy and pay, and schools gain competitive advantage in league tables and other comparative measures of educational success.
Where the profit motive operates in schools – even in schools that are still officially public – children and young people can become narrowly defined and measured according to this system of value. They can easily become objects which we work on instrumentally to achieve an observable ‘output’ which guarantees our own competitive edge (such as a chart indicating that they have made ‘three levels of progress’) rather than people with whom we can authentically engage. Unprofitable kids, unprofitable teaching methods, and unprofitable uses of time – including much of what we know works for deep, critical learning and for nurturing individuality, diversity and community in schools – become squeezed out of education as the profit motive sinks in. It is not only that schools should remain not-for-profit in public service and trust, therefore, but that the deeper logic of profit-making in all aspects of education today must be replaced by alternative principles of learning and care. There are so many ways to begin.
Ball, S. J. (2007) Education PLC: Understanding Private Sector Participation in Public Sector Education, Abingdon: Routledge.
Muir, R. (2012) ‘Not for profit: the role of the private sector in England’s schools’, Institute for Public Policy Research, http://www.ippr.org/assets/media/images/media/files/publication/2012/08/not-for-profit-private-sector-englands-schools_Aug2012_9492.pdf.
Ravitch, D. (2012–present) ‘For profit’ blog posts, http://dianeravitch.net/category/for-profit/.