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Profits in schools – response

Author: Simon Burgess

Profits in schools – response

There were some interesting comments on the recent post I wrote on profit-making schools. This post offers a brief reply to those points.

First, one comment was that allowing profit-making is a solution to the lack of capital for schools:

“advocates see profit-making as a way to tap the private finance that might allow supply-side liberalisation, which would in turn allow choice to operate more effectively than it does at present. Theoretically, of course, this boost to capacity could be done with public finance. But it’s questionable whether the necessary level of spare capacity would be politically sustainable given all the other calls on public spending (especially now). So private finance is (arguably) one solution to that problem.”

It may be a solution to that problem, but it is not a necessary solution, there are other ways. The PFI programme has been funding capital spending on schools for over a decade now.  Nor is it just a thing of the past: in 2011 Michael Gove announced capital expenditure through PFI of around £2bn to rebuild 300 schools. The latest estimates are that PFI expenditure on education will top £260m in 2012-13, and the whole programme has generated over £7bn for school building. The PFI obviously utilises the profit motive in the capital market to get funds into school building without needing profits in the schools themselves.

Second is the question of just how profits can be made. Given fixed revenue per student, it is not possible to directly make a greater rate of return by raising quality (the indirect route is discussed below). Profits can be made by reducing costs. This may be possible without reducing quality, or not. That possibility is that other agents can come in, re-arrange the budget, reduce costs and maintain quality by raising quality per pound spent. The comment was:

“You also argue that ‘outsiders’ are unlikely to know best how best to deploy their budgets. This seems like an odd argument. The market’s virtue is supposed to be innovation and the ability to scale good practice quickly through incentives to mimic the best. If you don’t think that works then I can’t see why you’d be interested in the practical aspects of for-profit schools, since there wouldn’t even be any benefits in principle.”

It is certainly true that schools are unlikely to be making completely optimal decisions. Our own work shows a huge degree of heterogeneity in schools’ financial decisions which is very unlikely all to be optimal. So they certainly have scope for learning. And schools may be able to learn from each other: a lot of people interpret the success of London schools as down to ‘London Challenge’ – and a lot of people interpret the success of that to collaboration, to learning from other schools. In fact, we are in the design stage of a large-scale RCT to test this out. But the key point is that with the current system for school revenue, allowing profit-making provides incentives to reduce costs but no direct incentive to raise quality. So again profits might be a way of encouraging collaboration, but there are other, easier, ways of doing the same thing.

The indirect channel for profit making to affect quality is a dynamic one. The third comment is:

“Presumably if you designed the admission and information systems properly then schools in which children make more progress will expand (either on site, or on another site) due to increased demand This could either come from parents choosing higher performing schools or commissioners awarding contracts/charters to higher performing schools. Then, assuming the school makes a fixed profit on each student they ‘process’, they will increase their profit through increased market share. Student progress up > Market share up > Profit up.”

The key here is the word “presumably”. Yes – this is the standard dynamic market process. If this worked in schools, then this would make choice and competition more effective in raising quality. But it does not appear to work well, as we described here. Understanding the best way to reform the revenue stream for schools to encourage expansion is the important part; profit-making may eventually be part of an incentive mechanism, but is currently tangential to the main problem.

I’m an economist, I believe that incentives matter hugely. Indeed, many of the things that I write or say to the Department for Education involve the phrase “you need to make it matter more”. But that is about individual incentives: perhaps making the pay of Headteachers contingent on school outcomes, perhaps introducing some form of performance incentive for teachers.  These people can raise quality, and can be rewarded for doing so.

Within the present rules of the game, schools cannot be rewarded for raising quality, because the revenue they would receive is independent of quality. Clearly, profit-making schools can introduce individual performance incentives; but so can – and have – non-profit making schools. Again profit-making is a side issue. It’s the wrong battle to fight.

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