I wish to address an interesting question. Can the introduction of markets, quasi-markets and choice into public education make it more effective? Firstly, you have to accept the premise of the question; you need to agree that there are more and there are less effective ways of going about teaching things to children. This seems obvious to me but there are eccentric characters out there who will question it.
And what do I mean by the introduction of such markets? I am talking about efforts to make state schools look more like businesses in the private sector, subject to competition but with increased freedom around how to operate. This includes initiatives such as charter schools in the U.S., academies and free schools in the U.K. and independent public schools in Australia. Other possible arrangements in the future could include transferable education vouchers that parents can spend on a school of their choosing.
I do believe that these arrangements have some benefits. I was never convinced about the consultants who worked for local authorities in the U.K. and who came into schools to further particular agendas. And I also think that schools should be able to recruit their own staff; something that many state-run systems centralise and do on behalf of schools.
These market-style initiatives also allow the opportunity for ‘proof of principle’ schools to arise. Many good ideas simply cannot get off the ground or are quickly stifled in monolithic systems if they don’t accord with the prevailing orthodoxy. It is hard to imagine anything like the Ark chain of academies or Michaela Community School in the old U.K. system and, whatever you think of it, KIPP required the advent of Charter Schools in the U.S.
However, specific cases do not demonstrate that such policies work to improve the whole system. In fact, I think that too much faith has been placed in these organisational measures. Without winning the argument about methods, we are doomed to repeat the failures of the past under new and shiny logos.
Why is this? Well, it is assumed that if parents have a choice then they will choose more effective schools over less effective ones. Let us set aside, for a moment, the question of whether parents really do have much of a choice under these models. This matter would make a blog post of its own.
I think parental choice should work well for issues of behaviour management. If a school has poor behaviour then this will be manifest and obvious. Generally, this should drive better behaviour policies. However, you will also get behaviour sink schools as the parents of disruptive students remove them from mainstream schools that have what they perceive to be unreasonable behaviour policies and send them to the more permissive ones which will no doubt spring-up to cater for this demand.
However, how is a parent to judge teaching standards? Many teachers don’t know what effective teaching looks like so how can parents tell? An education takes about 12 years and so the results of failure are not immediately obvious. Transparency over results will help but these are not perfect measures and can be spun.
After all, there’s a sucker born every minute. The theory of choice assumes parents have the information and understanding to make the right choices. But we see the failure of markets such as this all the time. There are expensive cosmetic products with sciencey-sounding ingredients that clearly enough people buy to make them worth marketing. I’ve mentioned before that my local pharmacy stocks homeopathic products right next to proper drugs and that they are packaged in a similar way. They cannot work, by any known scientific laws and yet, presumably, people buy them. The educational equivalent, of course, will be schools spouting psychobabble that parents will not have the requisite knowledge to properly analyse.
Our friends on the right are likely to interupt at this point and say, ‘So what? Parents should have the freedom to choose; the right to use their money as they wish, even if we think they’ve made the wrong choice. It is not up to a nanny state to impose these choices upon them.’
This is a respectable ideological stance. However, it does not actually address the question that I asked at the start of this post. It is quite beside it. The question that I want answered is whether all of this will make schools in general more effective. Freedom may be desirable but these ideas have been sold as a way to make schools better.
And let’s just hang on a minute before we get all Adam Smith about it. A parent choosing a government-funded school is spending the taxpayers money, not their own. Are we really saying that it is ethical to take money from a 25-year-old, single nurse and then give it to a parent to spend on fluffy nonsense?
I do think that these new models of school will be part of our future and I do see advantages to the freedoms that they may bring. Good regulation can mitigate some of my concerns. However, it is quite naive to think that by tinkering about with administrative arrangements you can fix education and avoid the carnage of the pedagogical battlefield.
There are many wars still to fight so keep your swords sharp.