Any free-market economy relies on competition to balance, poetically, business enterprise. The ultimate consequence of this model is that, over time, only a maximum of two providers survive: that with the highest quality or that with the best value to the consumer. All the other wannabes who provide poorer quality services or goods, or attempt to fleece with overinflated margins, gradually fall by the wayside.
This beautiful karmic and Darwinian survival-of-the-fittest environment has only one known predator: a large marketing budget, which has the power to tip the balance with smoke and mirrors that reflect a muscle-fit view of quality or the payday loan magnetism of value.
When you remove the essential ingredient of profit from this equation, the poetic balance topples. In the education sector, the vacuum left by the swift exit of free-market regulation is filled by the spandex-clad tag-team of Ofsted and the Department for Education – between them, they need to ensure that balance is restored to a free-market equation that can no longer balance.
Colleges: the problem with value-added
Failure to charge consumers for a service removes the requirement of value and only one provider, akin to a family game of Monopoly, can ultimately remain… the one with the highest quality. The most important variable, therefore, for those in the non-profit sector is exactly how "quality" is measured. The answer is that consumers generally want results. Results are an atheistic hook on which to hang your self-righteous hat, an inexpensive soundbite, in lieu of a marketing budget, to tip the balance; a pitied glance towards those competitors that were bested, a lifting of the belt and a loaded shake of the hand. In the provision of post-compulsory education, results are the lost ark, the grail, the whole Indiana Jones trilogy.
The post-16 sector sits squarely in between a desire to help young people achieve academic success and the free-market world of consumer choice, marketing and brutal competitive practice. The knockout blow in this in-between world seems to be dealt by a boxing glove loaded with some heavy value-added. A measure which assumes that cross-context comparison is fair and ignores vulnerability or disadvantage. If Blair were dead, he would turn in his grave.
Ofsted is, however, as with the 48-hour warning amendment, insightful. Judging post-16 provision based on percentage of university entry is now misguided. Tuition fees have brought free-market equations back to the HE sector and in the scrap to survive those who were not deemed to be the cheapest or the best fell onto the only safe haven available, to become the most accessible and stood with dark cloaks offering the poisoned apple of an unconditional offer.
This current importance of value-added, however, has caused the sword to fall on a small cohort of providers that are now in a position that is ultimately untenable. Those sitting squarely in urban areas of disadvantage, which is not considered as a factor in success. The providers these students seek have a dilemma. They are caught in between a virtuous rock and a value-added hard place. The best outcome? To be unfavourably compared with institutions around the country with no disadvantage context. And what happens to those institutions that cling to the inner-city comprehensive academic offer? Only time will tell but there is fear, like drinking red wine at a teachers’ Christmas party, that they will be watered down and that any A-level success of disadvantaged students will be offset by the need for numbers, for funding, for viability.
When the Department for Education publishes its valued-added outcomes, there will be a condescending glance and polite handshake from selective institutions that are not doing the same job. These institutions in disadvantaged areas will become uncompetitive and will fall by the wayside and, as they collapse, they will wonder what will happen to these young people with academic promise when institutions like theirs are all gone.
Nathan Wells is a former college senior leader