The Educational Market Fallacy

July 21, 2009

The idea that schools should be made to compete is a centerpiece of New Labour ideology, and a central theme of Alan Milburn et al’s report on social mobility (which I’m focusing on a bit today, as it has wide ranging implications for British society).

But the idea that schools should compete for the favour of parents is an interesting and contestable one. First, for a summary from the Guardian of Milburn’s position:

He proposes that parents be given a new right of redress to choose a better school for their child if they live in an area where the schools are consistently performing badly. Parents could be given an education credit worth 150% of the cost of the child’s schooling for a state school of their choice, and the extra funding would give good schools an incentive to expand pupil numbers and broaden their social intake.

So essentially he is arguing for a market based system of schools in which schools have to compete to attract clients (parents).

The theory goes that a market, when applied correctly, encourages certain behaviors amongst participants. Companies compete to survive and are forced to increase efficiency, provide a competitive product and, in the more outlandish reaches of market theory, to provide beneficial services to the community in order to protect their brand reputation (corporate social responsibility).

This is debatable at the level of the company – where does this perfect market exist, and does it actually have the effects that its proponents claim? What of the damage that markets can cause such as externalities like pollution, a search for the lowest common denominator in marketing, the entrenchment of economic inequality?

At the level of schools, it becomes downright dangerous. Schools, it hardly needs to be stressed, are not profit making institutions. The profit they make is metaphorical – in the form of skills, well balanced human beings, physical fitness, community functions, jobs etc… whis is deeply subjective (how do you value the output beyond A Levels obtained, expulsions processed, teachers viewing porn…?).

Yet parents are expected to be able to obtain and weigh up the virtues of different schools based on a value that they perceive each to have.

They are then expected to go to the trouble of transferring their children to another school, which would have to happen in large numbers for the system to work effectively.

Parents would then need access to objective, professionally produced, easily digested and comprehensive (ie not just numerical) evidence of the performance of different schools.

They would then need to be able to choose a different school within a workable distance from their home and have a fair chance of their child attending it.

As you can see, this is an extremely complex, bureaucratic task which many parents will balk at, while the state will hardly put huge resources into making it work. What will happen is that parents will be left to “choose” between schools based on less objective factors such as local sentiment, media scare campaigns, bullying or social status. League tables, often maligned for their susceptibility to manipulation, and their tendency to undervalue schools in poorer areas, will continue to penalize such schools, providing an excuse to rush for high performing schools in different areas.

This is not a recipe for an efficient school system fit to provide the foundations (and education is just a foundation) for social mobility in the future. The market is not a magic potion, guaranteed to deliver the outcomes that its proponents suggest.

Presumably, the vogue for choice is so strong amongst policy makers because the alternative is unpalatable. That would entail enough investment in schools, universities and other community institutions like colleges, apprenticeships, night schools, creches, mental health facilities, parental advice (the list goes on) to even out the provision of essential services across the country. It would entail challenging the monopoly of elite schools, whose facilities and skills would be shared with others. It would entail a far broader concept of education than merely “preparation for work” – encompassing the very real advantages of sport, literature, drama, music and languages for all pupils. It would also entail the participation of professionals, for sure, but including mental health professionals, social workers, nurses, scientists, historians, novelists, sportsmen, even politicians.

It’s a massive challenge which implies social transformation, not a chance to apply the market fetish of a few elitist tinkerers upon the schools and communities of the poor.

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