Co-operating, not competing;FE focus;Review of the week;Book

23rd April 1999 at 01:00
Education as a commodity". Edited by Naffsika Alexiadou and Colin Brock. Catt Educational Ltd, pound;14.95. 163pp.

THERE ARE markets and markets. The education commodity can be offered up in a perfectly competitive market, a limited or oligopolistic market, a quasi-market, or even a car-boot sale.

This book considers the issues but does not come to any conclusions. James Tooley starts the collection of papers with the case for the free marketeers. His utopia goes much further than the market reforms already introduced into schools ("choice and diversity reforms" in his formulation).

He thinks that although there is not the perfect flow of information that an ideal market needs, the information that parents have about schools is good enough to allow them to make choices. (He doesn't consider post-school learning.) This is not convincing, because the textbook competitive market does not run on information alone.

If you are suffering from market blues of any kind, the case studies that make up the rest of the book should reassure you that you do not suffer alone.

Nafsika Alexiadou interviewed FE managers who spouted market rhetoric and others who worried about service to the community. She makes a link between the "quasi-market" of colleges post-incorporation and "managerialism" inside the colleges.

Gillian Squirrel describes the contracting out of prison education. Many readers will be able to draw parallels between this story and their own experiences in other kinds of training or education. However, like most of the contributions it is long on the "how" of marketisation, but short on "why", and "what next".

The most serious attempt at a theory comes from Thomas Spielhofer and Geoff Hayward. They argue that competence-based national vocational qualifications were introduced because they could turn skills and qualifications into commodities.

It was partly by accident that the NCVQ ideas man Gilbert Jessup wedded NVQs to competency and functional analysis. Also, the theory developed here is at odds with an argument by Alison Wolf, who used "market forces" as an explanation of why NVQs did not develop as intended.

A chapter by Nicholas Beattie tells how the French left-wing educators Celestin and Elise Freinet set up a movement and promoted it using marketing techniques. This is not so much of a paradox as the author supposes.

The Freinet movement was and still is part of the co-operative movement. All co-ops operate in markets yet try to be an alternative to capitalist competition. Freinet ideas from more than 50 years ago still sound radical: run the classroom as a democratic meeting; encourage the students to raise money and plan how to spend it; get them to write and distribute a regular newsletter.

Even if we can't go so far these days, some co-operative principles could still help us escape the state's grip without falling into the unregulated hands of the market.

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