Exploring Alternatives: The Private School Model

In my series of posts about alternatives to education authorities I had explored how
educational provision might be provided by private companies. Since then I’ve met a number of people who have expressed the point of view that if private schools don’t need an education authority to manage, monitor or help them improve then why should state schools?

I think this is a very legitimate question and one that needs serious consideration. But let’s think about it further. The private school provides a service which people pay for.

I have something to sell – education – and if you are prepared to pay I’ll provide it. There are three conditions to this transaction:

1. If you the customer doesn’t abide by my conditions of service then I have a right to terminate our contract, i.e. remove your child.

2. If you as a customer you are not satisfied with the service provided by the school you can terminate the contract at any time and remove your child, i.e. send them to another school.

3. Many private schools have conditions of entry – selection procedures – this is a bit like a hospital saying we aren’t prepared to take you as a patient because there’s not much chance of us being able to help you – the effect of this quality control system at entry has a significant impact upon the quality of the product which leaves the school at the other end. Many conditions of entry are not necessarily based upon pupil ability but on the level of engagement of the parents in their child’s education.

Now let’s translate that into the state education environment. A company, or let’s say a board of governors, is given responsibility to run a school in one of our secondary schools in one of our towns.

If we then consider each of the elements in turn:

1. Options for the school – As a school we set out our expectations – your child fails to meet them – we ask you to remove your child and send them to another school. In the private sector this works because the parents can either send them to another private school or enrol them in a state school. However, this becomes more difficult in a community where there are no other alternatives within easy reach, or the parents do not have the financial wherewithal to send their child to a private school. If we remember it is an obligation of the education authority to provide education for every child – and the authority has commissioned a company or school to take on that responsibility for a community then that course of action, i.e. removing a child from the roll is not an alternative – unless in extreme circumstances.

2. Options for the customer – In the private sector if a parent is dissatisfied with a school the parent can remove their child at any time and send them to another school – market forces – I suppose. In the state sector this can still happen but the cost of transportation is borne by the parent who may not be in a position to meet that cost. This option also presupposes that there are vacancies at another school. Schools are under no obligation to agree to a placing request unless there are sufficient spaces, i.e. it can say no – whereas it must provide a space for a child within its own catchment area.

3. Conditions of entry -This is the area which would cause the greatest problem for state schools – if a child lives in the catchment are of the school the parents have a right to expect their child to go there. The school cannot set out any conditions of entry.

If we accept that schools would have to fulfil these conditions then it would still be possible for the school to operate like a private school, i.e. independent of the authority. The problem here comes when the school is failing. In the private sector a school would close as pupils left – parents would vote with their feet. As we have established above parents in state schools don’t have that luxury. So what happens? The school when inspected by HMIe (once every 6-7 years), receives a poor inspection and is placed under special measures – which don’t necessarily work. The bottom line is that it’s difficult to turn such a school round. The role of the authority in terms of school review and school improvement – I would argue – is better placed to ensure consistency of provision within all schools within its borders. However, this raises an interesting and debatable point – are education authorities actually making such an impact? – the answer would have to be no – i.e. there are still too many schools receiving poor inspection reports.

So what’s the alternative? I think the alternative is here already – we just need to be more rigorous in its application:

– authorities and schools need to work in much greater partnership;

– schools need to fully understand the role and obligations facing the authority;

– decision making power needs to moved down to schools wherever possible involving parents wherever we can;

– partnership between schools needs to be at the heart of development – underpinned by the notion of collective responsibility;

– authorities need to know their schools in depth and be prepared to take action to support a school where there are signs of any diminution in the quality of service it provides.

In summary – I think private schools provide a quality service in most cases but they operate within a very different set of conditions of service – comparison between state and private schools is therefore very difficult. Nevertheless, I think there are many things which the state sector can learn from the private sector and many things the private sector can learn from the state sector. Our common goals should be to provide the highest quality of educational experience for every child in our care.