Why isn’t policy done better in this country? We have some of the world’s best-known and most prestigious universities, churning out hundreds if not thousands of social science graduates every year, each of them educated to understand their subjects to a decent level of depth, sophistication and nuance.
And yet policymaking in England so often comes via papers which are so full of holes that I can only imagine they would be covered in the red ink of a lecturer’s corrections if produced, for example, by an undergraduate student as part of a research project. How must it feel for individuals to give up what they have learned as they progress towards influence at the heart of government?
Those were my thoughts a few months ago on surveying the atrocious white paper ‘Education Excellence Everywhere’. They surfaced again on coming across a report of a recent speech on free schools which may also have formed the basis for the government’s current super-controversial move to allow more grammar schools.
This latest document was a report of a speech in May by Nick Timothy, who at the time was the director of the free schools support group the New Schools Network but who is now Theresa May’s joint chief of staff and is widely credited with having had heavy influence over the formulation of the grammar school policy. I wrote about it in the Guardian last month.
In the speech, as reported by the Centre for the Study of Market Reform of Education (CMRE), the organisation to which it was given, Mr Timothy sets out a vision whereby free schools – the government’s name for new schools, overseen by the Department for Education – would return to their original mission.
This, the speech suggests, was not simply to provide new classroom places where demographics meant they were desperately needed. This has become the role of many recent free schools in the face of England’s surging pupil numbers. But no, the distinctive original rationale of the policy, Mr Timothy argued, was to open frees where there were sufficient places, but where the schools on offer to parents were not good enough. Mr Timothy reportedly told his invited audience:
The original logic of the free schools policy was that new schools should be set up in the communities served by failing schools: this would improve standards, give parents more choice, and allow new schools to innovate,
According to the CMRE report of his speech, he added:
The government is trying to create a market in the education system. This … is the right track for reform, but at the moment there’s a risk that we’re building in the potential for market failures too. A functioning market needs enough genuinely new entrants to challenge existing providers, enough capacity for competition to be meaningful, enough information for providers and users alike, ways of breaking up failing or monopolistic providers, and exit points for providers that aren’t doing a good enough job. The direction of travel is the right one, but there’s a lot that still needs to be done.
Underlying this talk, then, is a view of the free schools policy being used to set off market mechanisms which, it is envisaged, both help parents by responding to a demand for high quality education in the free schools which are created and spur other schools to improve for fear of failing to compete effectively for parental ‘custom’, and perhaps then having to close.
To be fair, it is an interesting model. If free schools were to work as described above, it sounds as if they would be a positive influence on the quality of English education. Wouldn’t it be great if there were this unending supply of ‘good schools’, funded by the government and set up where any group of parents wanted them? More seriously, the notion of teachers and possibly parents throwing themselves into free school projects to put their own stamp on innovative education provision also seems to me to have some face-value merit. And Mr Timothy has clearly thought through a few possible problems in the detail of how such market mechanisms need to work if they are to function effectively.
Yet the speech as reported was undermined by a basic failure to consider some of the more fundamental difficulties facing any avowedly free market approach to schools reform such as this.
The first problem is affordability. The premise of the talk was to create more school places, with the speech raising the possibility that this could include grammar schools.
Mr Timothy said:
If you can prove parental demand for your proposed school, then subject to all the other quality checks, you should be able to open it.
In the logic of this system, without this creation of new institutions, instigating surplus places in the system as a whole, the market mechanism he envisages would not work properly, since schools need to face a genuine risk of closure through failing to recruit enough pupils. And that is only possible when there are not enough pupils for the classroom spaces available in local schools.
But providing this surplus capacity – opening up more classrooms than is strictly necessary to ensure every local pupil has a classroom seat – is expensive. Keeping places empty is, rightly, a tough sell to taxpayers. Why not simply concentrate on making sure that the limited number of places available to parents are all good, it could be argued.
The extra day-to-day cost of providing unfilled places is not the only financial issue. The capital costs of opening new institutions and closing those which fail to attract pupils also seem likely to be very expensive, as experience is increasingly telling us.
A second, practical, problem is the availability of sites to allow new schools to be built. A string of investigations I have done on the proposed siting of frees in a variety of strange and often expensive locations mainly in and around London suggest this a serious issue, as is the general environmental impact of a choice policy which presumably assumes pupils are able to travel to a range of potential institutions competing for their ‘custom’.
A third problem may be the experience of pupils being taught in schools which either are on the verge of closure having been forced into a fight for scarce resources, or in new schools which are similarly faced with a struggle with their rolls. In an article last year, Fiona Millar gave a vivid example of two schools in Suffolk which were competing in what one commentator described as a ‘race to die’ and which reportedly led to a reduced curriculum and staff redundancies in one of the schools.
The experience of school closure itself can be traumatic and disruptive for the young people who must go through it. Yet these are the very ‘consumers’ which free market education reform advocates presumably want to help. The system advocated here seems to embrace school failures as part of its model with Mr Timothy’s detached insistence that ‘exit points for providers which aren’t doing a good enough job,’ are vital.
The sense of imposed market reform trampling over the history of a school and pupils’ experiences was one I felt profoundly after interviewing a group of parents and students for a feature on the closure of Woodlands comprehensive in Coventry in July.
A fourth consideration should be the likely effect on the teaching force of creating, as seems the aim, a system built on perpetual fear that institutions must improve or close.
The fifth question for all of this is what the alternatives are. To read a speech such as this is to get the sense that this rather complicated market apparatus is the only way that institutions might improve. Yet consideration of alternatives surely might prompt a different view. Given the costs of oversupply and the creation and abolition of schools, and the risk of a bad experience for pupils as some schools are deliberately rendered unviable, simply providing more government support, including leadership resources, to struggling existing institutions will strike many as a better approach. Put another way, is it better to put possibly hundreds of millions of pounds into creating more empty school places through free schools, in the hope that the market mechanisms in which Mr Timothy seems to have so much unquestioning faith might kick in, or simply to invest the cash directly in improving existing provision?
None of these issues seemed to be considered in this speech, leaving it vulnerable to accusations of a naïve pro-market fundamentalism. This is staggering given that thinking through the possible downsides as well as the potential of market mechanisms in various policy areas, including impacts on users of services and the public purse, would surely feature in any respectable undergraduate economics course.
Thinking this over took me back to a talk I gave to a group of public policy economists, many of them not working in education, earlier this year.
One offered this insight:
I’ve always been puzzled by this drive to try to impose market principles on education. There are surely some basic problems, such as the fact that competition effects don’t seem to work unproblematically, and closing schools will be difficult for pupils. Yet it seems to persist. †
Yes, indeed it does.
† – This quote is paraphrased from memory; I wasn’t taking notes.
Warwick Mansell is a freelance journalist and author of ‘Education by Numbers: the tyranny of testing’ (Methuen, 2007). Read more CPRT blogs by Warwick here.