Are private schools better managed than state schools?

Alex Bryson and Francis Green

Are private schools better managed than state schools?

In recent years governments of all hues have urged private schools to sponsor state schools to help raise education standards. In 2012 Lord Adonis, who had earlier been Labour’s Minister for Schools, argued that successful private schools, whose “DNA” incorporated “independence, excellence, innovation, social mission”, should sponsor state academy schools. Subsequent Coalition and Conservative governments have adopted the same  policy with the 2017 Conservative Party manifesto  aiming for at least 100 independent schools to sponsor an academy or start a free school.

The policy is not evidence-based. Instead it has been assumed that private schools’ successes are founded on superior management. There is no doubt that, even allowing for the normally affluent social background of private school pupils, these children on average perform well in exams, compared to their state-educated peers. Private schools also deliver a broad curriculum and provide a full sporting and cultural education beyond the classroom. How do they do that? Most obviously, because they deploy hugely greater resources, and because the schools are able, through their pupil selection, to concentrate on a generally aspirational peer group. But neither of these advantages are supposed to be part of the sponsorship policy.

Rather, governments have presumed that private schools might convey the desired ethos of aspiration and excellence through improvements in management practices. In forthcoming research to be published next week in the National Institute Economic Review, we present findings from the first large-scale study to test the proposition that cutting-edge human resource management (HRM) practices are more prevalent in private sector schools compared to state sector schools.

It is often presumed that the competition organizations face in the private sector drives up the quality of management, compared to that found in the public sector. Yet whether competition for pupils is that much fiercer among private schools, as compared with the competition among state schools, is a moot point. What is known is that autonomy from government is found sometimes to be beneficial. Private schools do have more autonomy than state schools – over pupil selection and the size of their budget – but otherwise British state schools have, by international standards, plenty of freedom to manage their budgets and their staff. Like state schools, private schools vary a lot. The private schools certainly have their quota of management problems – witness the many smaller schools that have been recently found wanting by Ofsted, criticised for “fundamental weaknesses in expertise”, their heads having no educational training .

Prior to our study there was one study finding no evidence that management practices in private schools in Britain are more advanced than in state schools. Their index of management practices, which was correlated with student performance, covered operations, monitoring, target-setting and people management practices. They applied this index in several countries. In the UK, where they had a small sample of 100 schools, they found no overall difference between the index score of the private schools and the score of the state schools they looked at.

Our study looked at 406 schools, including 79 that were private. We focused on 48 human resource management practices that are known to be associated in many industries with high levels of staff commitment and performance. They covered 8 domains: incentives, record-keeping, targets, teams, training, “Total Quality Management”, participation and selection. Although private schools were ahead of state schools in terms of record-keeping, on the whole it is the state schools who scored more highly across most domains, as well as in terms of our summary management score.

As expected, the variation in management practice between schools is considerable, so it is quite possible to imagine that well-managed schools might have something to pass on to less-well-managed schools. But this might just as easily be a state school helping a poorly managed private school, as the other way round. At any rate, there seems to be no evidence in support of a general policy of private schools sponsoring state schools, if that sponsorship is focused on the sharing of management expertise.

There remains much to be learned about the good management of state schools, but we are not optimistic that anything of substance on a large scale is likely to be gained by bringing in private school managers.

Acknowledgement: Alex Bryson thanks the Nuffield Foundation (grant EDU/41926) for funding. Francis Green acknowledges support from the ESRC-funded LLAKES Centre for Research on Learning and Life Chances (grant ES/J019135/1). The views expressed are those of the authors, and not necessarily those of the funders. All errors and omissions remain the sole responsibility of the authors.