The seven deadly sins of a marketised education system

26 April 2018

School cuts campaign cuts throughI had a strange moment the other day, en route to a discussion in the Houses of Parliament about academies.

Suddenly, I imagined myself in the shoes of Lords Agnew and Nash, the two businessmen – both Tory donors – who are the current and previous academies ministers.

Would they not be thrilled with how England’s schools have been re-organised through the creation, since 2010, of more than 7,000 academies, run individually or in small groups via multi-academy trusts, I wondered?

For it is possible to imagine that the way aspects of this system now operate would be viewed as exactly what a Conservative businessman might expect, as England’s education system is forced from a more traditionally public service set-up into something that looks more like a landscape of competing commercial organisations.

Multi-academy trusts, of course, are now the Government’s favoured mechanism for organising schools. Although they are not-for-profit charities, the competitive framework within which they operate is being made to resemble a market.

Some of these trusts expand as they get permission to take on schools either new to the academies sector, or from other trusts, while other chains shrink in size as they lose schools.

Individual institutions, then, can be subject to takeovers by different trusts. Trusts themselves can pay their leaders whatever they like. And individual trusts can have strong “brands”, to the extent that the title of the trust can be the first word in a school’s name, and with, as Lord Nash himself implied last year, a trust’s “content” – curriculum organisation, for example, or lesson planning -being tightly defined from the centre.

If you come from a business background, perhaps all this looks ideal.

The possibility of takeovers can make for a sector as bracingly fast-changing as in the corporate world

It is right that leaders should get paid as much as a trust thinks is appropriate, in order to attract “top talent” and incentivise success, the argument goes.

And these competing “brands” will rise or fall on their success with parents, with the drive for that success being purely beneficial, as it will spur innovation among the competitors. The innovative, successful brands will thrive, and the struggling ones will go bust. What could possibly go wrong?

Plenty, it turns out.

I can think of at least seven ways in which the thinking, as described above, runs into problems in the schools context.

First, a market featuring competing organisations falls down, as a way of organising public services, when bodies focused, by necessity, on their own self-interest do not, collectively, take actions which serve the public good.

The clearest example of this is the case of “orphan schools” or “SNOWs” (schools no-one wants): institutions which academy trusts do not want to operate, usually for fear of the reputational or financial risks of taking them on.

The public interest says someone needs urgently to be responsible for these schools. The sum of interests, in the market-like model of competing academy trusts, ensures that sometimes no-one will.

Second, while the instability implied by schools changing hands from trust to trust might seem bracing and positive to its advocates, in reality children in schools, and their parents, surely value a much greater degree of stability.

Although academy advocates might counter that institutional change can be productive, in reality they can call on little evidence that academisation has improved quality overall.

And school closures, although defended by market advocates  as a sign of competition working effectively, in the real world can involve years of problems for institutions and worrying upheaval for those they educate. Trusts collapsing can also bring anguish, on a larger scale.

Third, the ability of trusts to pay their leaders much more than they once would have earned as headteachers in the maintained sector again seems not to have driven an improvement in quality overall, while surely pushing up management overheads.

Fourth, the innovation this new structure might have hoped to create – in terms of the learning experience for pupils – struggles to happen against the backdrop of England’s punishing test - and exam-based accountability regime.

That is, there is limited scope for individual organisations to take a truly distinctive approach to what and how pupils are taught, given that all will be held to account through a narrow range of test-based performance indicators.

Indeed, in a world in which schools can close and their managements be sacked on the basis of a bad set of exam results, does innovation take place only in terms of how closely an organisation can get staff to teach to the test?

Fifth, although standardisation of schools’ products may have seemed attractive to the former academies minister, Lord Nash, many parents, and their children, will value the ability of schools in different locations to tailor their educational offer according to the needs of their communities. This also, surely, makes for a more interesting experience for teachers.

Sixth, in reality this is a system in which the expansion and contraction of trusts will depend not just on pure market mechanisms, but on the views of ministers and their civil servants, the Regional Schools Commissioners.

In a regime in which there is little transparency, this inevitably gives rise to worries about the dangers of cronyism.

But the seventh concern is the most significant. The risk of the set-up above is that teachers’ sense of public service – that is, their commitment to all pupils under their care – is undermined by a responsibility to the success of the particular organisation which employs them.

The clearest example of this is concerns about pupils whose results might not be good news for their school – and by implication, in the academies sector, the trust under which that school operates – being taken off its roll in the chase for better institutional data.

The worry is that the preservation of the brand is seen as more important than a wider sense of public service. This is desperately sad in a profession which is, by definition, founded on the notion of helping others.

It could not be a better illustration of the problems inherent in trying to force a major public service to function like a market.

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