Clegg needs to look at the private sectors contribution to social mobility abroad, in the poorest communities


Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, declared recently that entry requirements for new schools  would not be relaxed to accommodate for-profit development. His concerns arise from scepticism that organisations motivated by maximising the benefit to their investors can possibly have a contribution to make to improving social mobility.  Clegg suggested that admitting profit would in effect only further skew implementation of the policy to the benefit of the middle classes (sharp elbowed mothers etc). Doing away with the requirement that new school proposals should be parent initiated and led, and allowing businesses to make the running, would only accentuate a tendency, he claimed, that was already evident – for providers to cater only for relatively well-off communities, so avoiding the additional costs and risks associated with overcoming socio-economic disadvantage. (What about his own pupil Premium which incentivises schools to take disadvantaged pupils?)

James Croft, an education  research Fellow at the IEA,  who is in the process of setting up a new think tank promoting private sector involvement in education,  says in an article for Public Service Europe,  that Clegg is  just plain  wrong to suggest that profit-making and a commitment to creating opportunities for the disadvantaged are fundamentally incompatible.  Croft  highlights research from the EG West Centre at Newcastle University  which has shown in successive reports, ‘ in more open markets across the developing world, it is more often than not school businesses – not their amply resourced government school competitors – that are finding the means of making ‘education for all’ possible.’  Croft continues ‘  At a grassroots level, in many of the poorest communities of the developing world, ‘mom and pop’ private enterprises may be found offering a solid grounding in literacy and numeracy at prices affordable to slum dwellers.  A little further up the fee scale, private school chains make the running in devising and taking forward truly scalable solutions: overcoming the challenges of making low cost loans work; enabling students to pursue studies in their spare time so that they can continue to work; cross-subsidising schools at the low end of the market with fee income from the high end; harnessing other revenue streams to finance lower-cost provision; and indeed going beyond their remit and setting up charitable schemes.’  Croft adds  ‘While such initiatives are more common in countries where a lack of resources has constrained the development of state infrastructure, forcing governments to look to non-state actor’ for assistance in realising their policy goals, for-profit effort to expand access to independent education is also evident in markets where there is no apparent necessity for it. Croft mentions Gems  (private operator)work abroad and says that in the United Kingdom, ‘ for-profit Cognita has successfully extended bursary provision at a number of former charitable trust schools by capitalising their funds through the acquisition of the schools’ assets and businesses.’  In earlier research, for the Adam Smith Institute, Croft found numerous examples of ‘ proprietorial schools’ in England offering fee assistance at levels that rival those of their charitable trust run counterparts. This is all the more surprising given that 40 per cent of these proprietorial schools offer their education on fees less than the average per pupil funding in the state sector. Croft concluded ‘If Clegg’s interest is truly in ‘what really works in breaking the link between background and life chances’ he needs to get to grips with this evidence and recognise the effectiveness of the private school model for widening access and improving equity.’

It is significant that our own DFID has just come round to realising just how important private education is in the developing world in filling the huge gaps not filled by public education. Many poor families in India, Africa and elsewhere see private schools and the informal sector  as the only means to provide an education for their children and to become socially mobile.

Here  we  allow for profits to  build schools, inspect them , to run school improvement services for local authorities, as well as to run special schools for our most challenging pupils and,  indeed,  to educate young  prisoners, but   perish the thought  that we let them anywhere near our  mainstream pupils!


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