New research claims to show “for-profit” schools are great, but can it be trusted?

21 December 2010
Local Schools Network
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The Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) new research publication, Schooling for Money: Swedish Education Reform and the Role of the Profit Motive looks at the role of for-profit schools in Sweden and for the first time attempts to provide valid quantitative evidence regarding how these schools perform. The results claim to show that the competition that drove improvements in the Swedish system was only possible because of the high number of for-profit schools that were established.

However, examination of these statistics reveals that they are probably too clever for their own good. The IEA has used very sophisticated statistical models to show that for-profit schools significantly improve children’s results. Many statisticians would question their results because they have used “control mechanisms” which claim to equalise children from different backgrounds in an attempt to compare “like for like”. The trouble is that when you compare a child from a “for-profit” school, it’s very difficult to find his/her equivalent in a “non-profit” school. For example, boys of the same age and same social class in the two types of school may look like they are comparable, but they may not be because one may come from a highly aspirational background (as many children in “free” schools do) and the other may come from a severely “depressed” background. This research attempts to eradicate such problems by sprinkling some statistical “magic dust” over the data in the form of a series of formulas which attempt to iron such issues. In other words, they have used puzzling methods in their attempt to compare children from different social backgrounds and different schools. They claim to have statistically resolved the differences between these children so that their comparisons between the achievements of children in for-profit schools can be validly compared with children in non-profit schools. However, have they really done this? The methods they’ve done this by are very sophisticated indeed and must be taken with a serious pinch of salt. The trouble is that these sophisticated statistics tend to manipulate the data in ways in which make the ensuing results unreliable.

Other reports into the Swedish free school system tend to show that for-profit schools lead to increased social segregation and indifferent results across the board. The fourth report on Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) published this month concluded: “Countries that create a more competitive environment in which many schools compete for students do not systematically produce better results…While students who attend schools that compete with other schools for student enrolment perform better than students who attend schools that do not compete with other schools, the cross-country analysis suggests that systems as a whole do not benefit from higher rates of school competition.” Research from the IOE on Sweden’s ‘free school’ reforms suggests that the entry of new schools had a positive effect on pupils’ academic achievements. But according to a survey of the evidence by Rebecca Allen, the benefits are small, they are predominantly focused on children from highly educated families and they do not persist: scores are no higher in the end-of-school exams.

Perhaps it comes as no surprise that the IEA is financed partly by donations from corporate firms and always attempts to promote the cause of the free market in whatever sphere it’s investigating. I appeared on Jeff Randall’s News Programme on Sky News talking about this issue with Mark Littlewood, Director General of the IEA tonight at 7.50pm. He attempted to claim the research was valid, but had to concede when I challenged him that the Swedish free school system didn’t compare favourably with ones like Finland in the recent Pisa survey. The presenter, Anna Jones, asked me what I thought of allowing private companies to make a profit in the education sector; I replied that it was highly problematic for taxpayer’s hard-earned cash going into the pockets of fat cats. Littlewood admitted that there was a gut instinct in the British public against this idea but said that we are not so emotional about private firms making profits out of food. I countered by saying that our children are not cans of beans — a phrase taken from one of Fiona Millar’s excellent Guardian Education columns. That was all I had time to say, but I felt it made an important point about why the free-market won’t work in schools. Unlike cans of beans which can be returned to the factory if they are defective, children and teachers can’t be binned; it is very difficult to close down failing schools, even for-profit ones, because real lives, not products, are affected.

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