Few things exercise critics of education policy more than the spectre of increased competition in our school system. Although the Government, for now at least, has decided that giving the green light to for-profit schools would be as popular as Angela Merkel at a Greek wedding, it has encouraged other players to enter the arena. The opening of free schools in areas with adequate provision has been the most obvious and controversial example. But more widespread and less remarked on has been the cut-throat competition for post-16 students (pages 26-31).
More and more schools are opening new sixth-forms, partly because they want to provide an all-through service and partly because the money follows the pupil. Consequently, the competition facing colleges that have traditionally provided much post-16 education has increased. Factor in a decline nationally of 90,000 in the number of 16 to 18-year-olds by 2015, and that competition becomes so aggravated it's toxic. Colleges accuse schools of freezing them out of recruitment drives; schools attack colleges for enticing candidates with tablets, phones and other bling.
Schools do not make good markets. The idea that more competition can provide greater parental choice has always been overcooked. And anyway, parents don't seem to want it (see page 10). Also, geography inevitably limits the amount of schools, hence competition, an area can support.
Then there is the teensy weensy problem of institutions that have distorted the market rather than played fair. Selective schools haul in the brightest pupils, for instance, and tend to shun the difficult and less academically gifted. They operate like uptight and upmarket nightclubs, picking the customers they want to serve.
But for many, the very idea of competing for pupils will always be anathema. It seems so un-school. It threatens an ordered world that strategically plans provision and allocates pupils. Those that fear the consequences of a market let rip have good cause to worry. If no authority oversees admissions, plots likely pupil numbers or configures special needs support, the results won't just be missed targets or dicey operating margins, but ruined, real pupil lives. The unfettered market destroys as much as it creates.
There again, it's not only easy but convenient to over-do the outrage. We'd all prefer to be left in peace, not to have to stir ourselves and bother with pesky interlopers. But competition has a place as long as it's contained. Who really suffers if two schools compete for the same pupils? Should we shed too many tears if institutions have to raise their game as long as the playing field is level and they are equally funded? Should we mourn the passing of mediocrity if a school has to rethink what it does because the community has decided it's not up to scratch?
It is understandable that schools, particularly those in challenging areas, would want to nurture aspiration by providing a sixth-form. And it is acceptable, if unpalatable, if this results in a crude battle for students. But choices can only be valid if youngsters are given the information to make them. Institutions that limit awareness of what is on offer or engage in underhand tactics to advance their interests rather than those of their students are behaving immorally. And a government that believes in fair competition should do more than shrug when confronted with evidence of widespread abuse.