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James Stanfield: What's wrong with the profit motive in education?

James Stanfield is a director at the School of Education at Newcastle University, and also the Editor of "The Profit Motive in Education: Continuing the Revolution, a new publication released this week by the Institute of Economic Affairs.

It is fair to suggest that many politicians are still cautious about combining the profit motive with children’s education.  The suggestion is that educating children should not be for profit, and that because education has always been separate from the forces of the free market, then that's how it should stay.  However, this anti-profit mentality in education raises more questions than it answers.

Firstly, would politicians still believe that educating children should not be for profit if schools run by for-profit companies could be shown to produce much better results at a lower cost – especially for the less-well-off? Or should these schools be permanently excluded irrespective of how they perform?  While many politicians might claim that no such evidence exists, we should also question why they don’t appear to be interested in finding out which type of school performs the best. Are they confident in their belief that all government schools will always outperform all schools run by for-profit companies, both now and at any time in the future?  Or is there some objection in principle to the profit motive, even if the education of children suffers as a result of excluding it?

Second, it is incorrect to suggest that education has always been separate from the forces of the free market, as there is a mountain of historical evidence that clearly shows how a wide range of forms of learning emerged spontaneously with the help of religious, charitable and for-profit private providers. And even within a nationalised education sector, the profit motive has continued to play an important role behind the scenes.  For example, every school building, every table and chair, every textbook and computer and every pen, pencil and piece of paper which are used in government schools are all purchased on the free market from companies driven by the profit motive.

When we define education more widely, the profit motive has clearly played a fundamental role in the growth and development of the printing press, libraries, schools, colleges and newspapers.  For-profit companies also currently dominate the provision of state-funded nursery schooling, which suggests that the government trusts these companies to provide schooling to children up to age five, but not beyond.  Politicians must therefore explain why the profit motive works for the youngest children but not for those aged six and above.

There are also hundreds of for-profit companies, such as the Early Learning Centre (ELC), which sell a variety of different learning products and services directly to parents to help engage children in the process of learning.  When learning materials are purchased from ELC, I doubt that parents will be concerned with the legal status of ELC or with what motivates the company to sell learning games and materials. Instead a simple transaction takes place in which both parties are expected to profit - a genuine win-win situation.  And so if the profit motive plays such an important role in helping companies such as ELC to develop and expand to help meet the learning needs of parents and children, why would the same also not apply if ELC decided to open a manage school?  In fact wouldn’t trusted brands such as ELC be particularly well placed to expand into schooling if given the opportunity?
Finally, instead of attempting to defend the role of the profit motive in education, the burden of proof must surely be placed on those politicians who want to maintain the current restrictions on parents and the resulting government monopoly. How do these restrictions on parents improve the provision and quality of education?  And before politicians attempt to claim that not all parents are capable of choosing the best school for their children, they would do well to remember that these are the same parents that may have voted them into power.  If these parents are not capable of choosing the best school, will they not be even less capable of choosing the best politician? If this is the case, then doesn’t this undermine the position of each Member of Parliament?

Politicians can’t have it both ways.  If parents are deemed capable of voting in an election, then doesn’t this imply that must also be capable of the much easier task of choosing the best school for their children?  If this is the case then for politicians, the question of whether the chosen school is state, religious or for-profit should be irrelevant.


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