Comment: Data shows the private sector can improve our schools

Comment: Data shows the private sector can improve our schools

Embedding the private sector in education can raise standards, but only if you do it properly.

By Harry Patrinos

The UK state schools system still runs behind many of its European peers in terms of the involvement of the private sector. Five per cent of primary and 28% of secondary age pupils in the UK are enrolled at schools which are state-funded but with input from private firms; this compares with 69% primary and 83% secondary in the Netherlands and 15%/26% in France.

The question is whether this matters. As more countries look at new ways to improve educational outcomes – increasing access, improving quality and ensuring equity – more attention is being paid to the potential input from the private sector. But does private participation mean 'higher quality' education? That is, better results in examinations and assessments as well as encouraging greater equality? Evidence shows that in the independent sector, with schools dependent on contributions through fees, it is often the case that once you control for family background, the actual benefits of private schooling disappear. But in systems where access is not limited by selection or wealth, privately-managed schools can contribute to better outcomes.

Politicians and policy-makers need to be aware of different approaches internationally – all of which are essentially experiments to one degree or another – and be prepared to benchmark the results around the contribution to improving test scores and reducing attainment gaps between social groups. In the Netherlands, for example, children at publicly-funded 'private' schools tend to be from a lower social class than those pupils attending a 'public' school, and yet test scores achieved are higher. The level of choice offered, alongside fixed funding from government per student (with additional funding for disadvantaged students) appears to provide incentives for Dutch schools to keep improving. At the same time, given the need for the schools to compete for students by demonstrating success, there's no evidence of grade inflation.

Japanese high schools use private tuition support, which has been shown to lower dropout rates among students taking less academic study pathways. The charter schools in the USA have had real impact on narrowing achievement gaps. The Harlem Children's Zone, combining schooling with community support such as help with healthcare and meals, could reverse the black-white achievement gap in maths, according to trials; the 'Knowledge is Power' schools have been criticised for only improving test scores through selection, but based on a rigorous impact evaluation the evidence shows that the largest gains are among young people with special educational needs and limited English.

The current picture internationally is that involving the private sector can improve school performance through competition, accountability and autonomy, as well as expanding access in a cost-effective manner. However, without strong systems of accountability, private schools with public funding aren't likely to produce large gains, especially in learning. In other words: design matters. The best results come from systems which enhance competition through choice, target disadvantaged areas and allow for plenty of autonomy at a school-level. Any new approach needs to be subjected to rigorous evaluation of its impact. Small-scale pilots are needed initially, with investment only going to those projects which are proven to work. And moving forward, each country has a lot to learn from others. Keeping this kind of watch on the international picture, benchmarking education policies, will be important for raising standards and addressing inequality.

Harry Patrinos is lead education economist at the World Bank, on secondment as a visiting research fellow at the UK's CfBT Education Trust. He specialises in all areas of education; especially school-based management, demand-side financing and public-private partnerships and his areas of particular expertise are evaluations of education systems and reforms, and the involvement of the private sector in education provision. Harry is one of the main authors of the reports, Making Schools Work (2011), The Role and Impact of Public-Private Partnerships in Education (2009), and Decentralised Decision-Making in Education (2009). He has worked in Africa, Asia, Europe, the Middle East and North America and previously worked as an economist at the Economic Council of Canada. The views expressed above are his and not necessarily those of his organisations.

Click here to read his toolkit for international policymakers, 'Engaging the Private Non-State Sector in Education'.

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