Government announcements in recent days have created a flurry of response, particularly the lengthening of the teacher training period and the forced conversion of all schools to academies. As many have said, this could be seen as the final privatisation of the national education service. But the actual impact of such measures will not be in the hands of the government. As in so many things, what matters is what happens at school level: the conditions actually experienced by teachers and pupils are nor decided in Whitehall, but in SLT meetings up and down the country, and the way their minions choose the implement their policies.
It may be worth noting that few if any other developed nations seem to have chosen to tread this route, though that does not in itself imply it will be unsuccessful. I suspect that part of the inspiration (if that is the right word) is the ongoing success of the independent sector in the U.K. – the ability to stand alone and make decisions for themselves certainly does not seem to do them any harm.
Yet the problem with universal services such as education is that they cannot be allowed to fail – even when failure is the natural selection mechanism of the private sector. Just as bankrupt rail operators had to be bailed out by the state because trains cannot be allowed not to run, so government cannot afford to allow the national education provider to become truly independent. In fact, the consequences of failure are so serious that it cannot really even be allowed to reach bailout point. In other words, we will no doubt end up with a Frankenstein arrangement with a loose assemblage of not entirely intermeshed components that purport to function as a whole. Whether this is a better solution overall than something more co-ordinated I doubt, largely from observing the effects of similar changes in other sectors.
So while I steadfastly adhere to the principle that education should be free (and free of ulterior motives), the main objections here are practical.
In a truly free market, customers would be able to choose whether to consume the service or not; clearly children and their parents do not have the ability to shun education. Likewise, products would be sufficiently differentiated as to allow the consumers to choose for themselves. But schools remain severely constrained from distinguishing themselves by the kind of education they offer – so customer choice remains mostly an illusion. Likewise, the market is only allowed to function for some aspects of the service and not others: teachers, for instance will remain at least as heavily constrained as ever. Heaven forbid that they might actually gain from the changes! This is enough to prevent what is happening from ever working in the way a truly free market would.
But one could imagine the new freedoms could work well in the hands of imaginative, benign leaders. Freed from the need for conformity, all sorts of enticing prospects could open up. Perhaps, then, the solution is not to object: maybe we should press for these reforms to be taken further.
- Children or parents who have no interest in education would not need to participate. This would remove from schools a significant number of children whose only function seems to be to disrupt the education of those who do want it. They could be allowed to sell their services on the jobs market, perhaps as chimney sweeps or coal miners.
- Schools could be free to offer any kind of education they chose. Most obviously, this could create a distinction between academic and technical schools, and pupils could select the type they most preferred. But we could also endorse religious schools, and indeed any other group with a vested interest in ‘educating’ people in a particular way. Perhaps we could have schools for religious extremists, so that they didn’t go round poisoning more reasonable people with their propaganda.
- What is good for the goose should be good for the gander. So schools should be able to reject those pupils whose presence they did not desire – again those whose impact is disruptive, or who will damage the school’s exam results or reputation. Perhaps also those with special needs. They would have to shape up or ship out – and it would just be too bad if no school would take them.
- Schools could also be genuinely able to determine their own curricula, and set their own examinations. Maybe they would need to be validated by universities – or they could be as dumb as required in order to yield 100% pass rates.. They could aim to recruit more teachers than the formula specified, thus creating better contact ratios and allowing teachers to do a higher quality job. They could even choose to pay them more, in the forlorn hope of retaining them.
- And teachers should be able to sell their services to the highest bidder, a bit like much of the dental profession now does, regardless that it is the taxpayer that funds much of their training. Rates of pay would be determined by supply and demand. Teachers would be able to move between schools with something like a normal notice period, and indeed thus also be able to move to other types of employment more easily. They would be able to negotiate workloads and timetables to a point of mutual convenience.
- Schools could compete to attract and retain teachers based on attractive terms of employment in the knowledge that they could lose staff at any moment if they were poorly treated. They might genuinely need to consider teachers’ well-being and work-life balance, and indeed offer packages of sweeteners to attract staff from competing schools. Schools that failed to attract sufficient teachers would just have to cope – or close.
- Those who failed to thrive in this regime would simply have to put up with the worst teachers, lowest pay and worst facilities.
- And schools and teachers would be free to ignore the latest idiocies and meddling emanating from the political parties, inspectorate or Department for Education.
No, wait! That is just too silly. It mustn’t happen.