Schools for Profit

Just before the announcement of the GEMS Report on efficiency and education spending, discussed on this blog yesterday, Conservative Ministers at the DfE were apparently once again toying with the notion of ‘for profit’ schools. My own Party, the Lib Dems were quick to rule out such an idea but, as this blog has discussed before, what is really meant by a ‘for profit’ school? In its pure form, a contractor would offer to educate a fixed number of children for a price, presumably the same price as other schools in the area, and if it could do so for less money it could keep the difference as the profit element in return for the risk run. Now there would presumably have to be set outcomes to prevent a contractor taking the money and providing sub-standard education. An immediate question is: if they can achireve the current standard for less, why not improve standards for the same amount of public money? However, if in other government contracts there is a fixed price to a contract with no requirement to improve service levels with any saving that can be made why should education be different? An interesting question, but perhaps the question should be why the State lets contractors achieve less than is possible from the same amount of public money anywhere?

On the other hand we already supply many services to schools that generate a profit. Resources, IT equipment, temporary and even permanent teachers, transport, cleaning, catering and building services not to mention HR, financial, and legal services. So, if someone is making a profit out of all of these activities, what’s left?

Realistically, it is the core activity of teaching and learning and the ethos of ‘free at the point of delivery’ that we associate with both education and the health service in this country, even though opticians are as much a fashion retailer as a dispenser of eye services these days and school trips cost hundreds of pounds and schools often bend the rules on books and equipment let alone what they see retailers charge for uniforms – an area of profit from schooling for someone, but one where competition has driven down the price of the basic uniform to a level where questions about low paid workers in developing countries might be just as much an issue for some as profit levels.

The State, as corporate parents, has a duty to offer schooling for all, and parents may or may not wish to take up the option. If they do, they expect the best possible education money can buy them and they expect the State to achieve that for their children.

There is probably a lot of muddled and emotive thinking associated with the discussion over profit, but we might start by looking at the point that GEMS were making, can schools make better use of their resources? Anyone who hasn’t done so could do worse than start by reading the DfE publication from 2012 entitled, Understanding Schools Financial Decisions https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/understanding-school-financial-decisions As the authors of that Report concluded: ‘The results show that even many of the important operational financial decisions of schools are largely idiosyncratic.’

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More may be better in the classroom?

Many years ago I was travelling back from a conference in the USA on an Air New Zealand flight where the newspapers handed out to passengers were New Zealand daily papers a couple of days old. Among the articles in one paper was a review of an education conference at which a DfES official – I think it was during that period of initials – had noted that many Asian countries had larger classes than in England and perhaps we might want to consider whether or not to copy them. I passed the item on to the education press when I reached England. The resulting piece in the now long gone weekly Education duly appeared under the headline that appears at the top of this blog. I was reminded of that episode, and the unfortunate civil servant who no doubt thought going all the way round the world he would be safe to speculate on such issues without anyone back home noticing – note for younger readers, this was in TDBI, the days before the internet, when it was normally safe to say things at conferences down under without any comeback in London – on reading about a report on the BBC Education page. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-29063679

All this is by way of introduction to the new research published today by GEMS Education Solutions, but not yet seemingly available on their web site. According to the BBC Report, the researchers looked at education indicators from around the world and raked the UK – note it was the UK and not England – in 11th place. Two of the indicators were class sizes and teachers’ pay. Assuming that smaller class sizes don’t bring better results is, as I have shown above, not a new discussion and neither is teachers’ pay and remuneration. Outside of Helsinki, I don’t know what the demand for graduates is like in the rest of Finland compared with the output of new graduates. Wages may be relatively low because demand isn’t strong or because the national labour market has narrower differentials between jobs requiring a higher degree of education and those that don’t. There is evidence here that in the past depressing the pay of teachers reduces interest in the profession. Indeed, teachers are one of the few groups that have not benefited from the extra holidays most workers now receive. Fourteen weeks without pupils does not equate to 14 weeks of holiday whatever some of the press think. Add in INSET days, the days before and after term, parents’ evenings, the hours it is generally agreed teachers work during term-time, and it soon dips below the 8 weeks many professionals receive after holiday entitlement, bank holidays and the Christmas closures.

The main argument against bigger classes is that the classrooms simply wouldn’t accommodate them in many schools. Also at the start of schooling there are already wide differences between the stages of development of many children. Making them learn in larger groups won’t reduce that gap. As the statistics show, and has been reported on this blog, average class sizes have reduced in the secondary sector over the past few years while results have improved. Does that fact counter evidence of larger classes elsewhere? How do the researchers account for the behaviour of the private sector in this respect? I believe that GEMS did have schools with different class sizes in The Gulf, but I have no knowledge of them trying such an idea here. Perhaps they might experiment with offering a school with larger classes, but lower fees than is normal in the private sector, in a UK city and examine the results. My hunch is that there wouldn’t be many takers, but I am willing to be proved wrong.