Government-funded, privately provided

Written by: HTU | Published:

With government-funded, privately provided schools a growing feature of education systems around the world, the CfBT Education Trust has carried out research into what works and why. Oli de Botton explains

More than 70 per cent of children in the Netherlands attend government-funded, privately provided schools. In Korea almost a quarter of middle schools and nearly a half of high schools are private and government-funded; charter schools in the USA are growing at a rate of 15 per cent a year.

Providers are often diverse, including social enterprises, trade unions, parent-led groups, not-for-profits, faith organisations and businesses.

But what approaches work and why? As the UK starts out on its own journey via the free schools policy, we looked at how government-funded, privately run schools can work best, the role of regulation, and how providers are managed.

The expansion of government-funded, privately provided schools has brought difficult questions for policy-makers, such as how do you ensure that competition between providers is fair and that choice for parents is real and informed? How do you deliver an accountable system which protects school autonomy but has the capacity to intervene where there is failure? And can innovation be encouraged so that new systems do not replicate old failures?

One of the main drivers for the introduction of private, state-funded provision has been a desire to expand parental choice. Politicians have viewed families as consumers of education who need a diverse range of options and the ability to “vote with their feet”.

In this context, choice is a means both of meeting parental demand and driving up standards as schools compete for students (although it should be noted that the evidence for the overall impact of competition between schools is long and contested).

Opponents of reform often claim that the expansion of choice entrenches disadvantage as new schools become the preserve of the privileged. There is some evidence from Sweden that indicates pockets of social segregation linked to background or parental income in free schools. There is also evidence from the Danish system of “skimming”, whereby more advantaged students leave the public school system to attend new private schools.

New Zealand is often held up as either a cause célèbre or a cautionary tale when looking at supply side reform. A succession of policies, introduced in the late 1980s and 1990s, were designed to reshape the system. Reforms included providing high autonomy for individual schools, with the dismantling of local government control; integrating private schools into the government-funded sector and the end of geographically defined admissions areas so children were not “trapped” in areas of disadvantage as is often the case in England. Taken together these reforms have significantly expanded choice, allowing students from poor families to escape underperforming schools.

Policy-makers have approached the choice imperative in different ways. Some have introduced new provision (Sweden, Denmark, America and now England) while others have opened up admissions arrangements (New Zealand).

Some have encouraged competition through greater autonomy for existing schools (England) and others have supported private schools into the government-funded sector, often using vouchers or subsidies (the Netherlands, Korea, Denmark, New Zealand).

In terms of how countries have sought to expand choice, voice and competition, we found that best practice rested on:

• Opening up admissions arrangements to “level the playing field” for all families.
• Having transparent admissions arrangements.
• Sharing performance information about all schools widely.
• Directing new provision into areas of disadvantage and/or low standards.
• Instituting progressive funding mechanisms that prioritise disadvantaged pupils.
• Preparing regulation to prevent monopolies developing.

The interviewees working in senior positions in government and education institutions internationally highlighted that where reforms were successfully implemented a high degree of accountability was fostered by regulators and policy-makers.

This was seen to emanate from tight contracts, quality assurance and intervention strategies put in place by regulators and the ability of new providers to set their own terms and conditions for staff and thereby remove underperforming teachers.

For example, the District of Columbia Public Charter School Board in the US reshaped its systems in 2009 to deal with the growing number of charter schools in the district and concerns from parents and politicians about a lack of transparency when judging schools. The District of Columbia schools’ chancellor introduced stronger teacher accountability with philanthropy-funded performance bonuses and greater freedom to dismiss practitioners. Since 2007, all high schools have improved their standardised test pass rates by 14 per cent in reading and 17 per cent in maths, while elementary school pass rates have improved six per cent in reading and 15 per cent in maths. System-wide graduation rates also improved by three per cent to 72 per cent in 2009.

Our findings suggest that effective accountability arrangements are based on quality assurance and intervention strategies which are rigorous, transparent and targeted. Specifically we found strong support for the idea that quality assurance should be staged.

First, regulators should set high standards, then they should inspect in proportion to risk and then they should intervene in schools that are not performing. Interviewees highlighted that policy-makers need to retain strong intervention mechanisms for private provision, particularly in light of their high degrees of autonomy. They also suggested that large-scale intervention necessarily involves a number of organisations in addition to new providers.

Critical to the success of autonomous schools is their ability to develop innovative practices to meet the needs of pupils better than traditional government provision. In this way they can satisfy the demand which brought them into the system in the first place. How new schools are authorised, naturally, has an impact on their character and diversity. In England there is currently a single authoriser for new schools and the transfer of existing schools, the Department for Education.

In the Netherlands, schools themselves, accustomed to enhanced freedoms, are increasingly making their own decisions to transfer to different ownership.

In America there is a mixed market in school authorisation. Authorisers include traditional government school districts (Denver), not-for-profit organisations (Volunteers for America in Minnesota), universities (New York and Michigan) and state education agencies (Massachusetts and Georgia).

Some states have found that having more than one authoriser in their jurisdiction helps to scale-up private and diverse provision. More than 80 per cent of all charter schools are in states where there are multiple authorisers. New York State, for example, has multi-authorisation capacity and is home to a range of private providers offering a number of education approaches.

Schools authorised include charters attached to the Harlem Children’s Zone (which offers a holistic approach to raising achievement with wrap-around developmental support for families); the Voice Charter School (which offers high quality choral support); and an Uncommon Charter School (which devolves autonomy to school principals to innovate).

Although interviewees emphasised the importance of a standard process for authorisation, they highlighted that diversity relied on a flexible framework, able to approve a range of high quality schools. They also reported that diversity was fostered if there were no caps on the number of new schools that could be approved. This notion remains controversial, particularly in times of financial difficulty.

Nevertheless, the Centre for Education Reform, which compares American states on their ability to foster diversity and competition within the context of charter schools, highlights that states with the most diversity and competition have multiple authorisers, no cap on the number of charters, and processes which protect the autonomy of schools.

Our study suggests that autonomy leads to innovation if providers have a clear target population. Innovation leads to wider improvements if providers can scale up by generating efficiencies in back-office services and through the sharing of school improvement and leadership resources. In the future, and notwithstanding significant issues around capital investment, scalability will be achieved through an investment in leadership training and capacity for new schools.

Overall our conclusions suggest that effective reform relies on an effective and sensitive regulatory framework. It is also crucial that school operators are able to respond to the regulatory environment by developing innovative educational and financial practices. As reform becomes embedded, policy-makers should encourage high quality provision to grow while ensuring school chains do not become monopolies acting in their own self-interest. This may require regulatory frameworks similar to industries such as telecoms and water.

The particular lessons for the UK are the need for greater emphasis on choice, particularly the need for a range of non-government authorisation bodies which can contribute to achieving this goal. The process of approving, renewing and closing government-funded, privately provided schools should be independent and transparent. Accountability systems need to be targeted in order to protect school autonomy, but robust enough to intervene where there is real and sustained failure. Effective and systemic intervention often involves policy-makers working with a wide range of partners (including high performing schools and non-government actors). 

• Oli de Botton is senior consultant at CfBT Education Trust.

Further information

A copy of the full report, Nurturing a thousand flowers: International approaches to government-funded, privately provided schools, can be downloaded from

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