Competition has a role but must be kept in check

30th July 2010 at 01:00
Free-for-all in the new education marketplace would be cause for concern

It's about time the "C' word was mentioned. There's been a lot of excitement recently about rushed legislation, legions of academies and hordes of free schools. But remarkably little attention has been devoted to the one idea motivating all this activity: competition. Underpinning the Government's plans for education is the belief that by allowing schools more freedoms and by increasing their supply, standards will rise as the system competes to respond to the demands of the consumer - or parents and pupils as they are quaintly called in some quarters.

Many in education instinctively recoil at the word "competition". Education, they insist, is a collegiate endeavour that operates best when guided by another "C" word, "collaboration". Which is curious because market practices have been in the system for years - funding that follows the pupil, some parental choice and publicly available information on school performance, for instance.

Nor is the competitive instinct lacking within schools or between them. Teachers harness it daily to inspire and enhance pupil performance. Heads use it to benchmark their own performance and that of their neighbours. As one admitted in an academic survey a few years ago: "As a teacher you want to improve all pupils... but perhaps not the ones in the school next door."

On the other hand, competition in a public space like education has obvious limits. A market in schools isn't much use in rural areas that have difficulty supporting a couple of pubs and a post office, let alone multiple education providers. It can impede the spread of best practice if schools refuse to share good ideas with their competitors, and it isn't at all clear what fate awaits schools that languish in league tables but for whatever reason retain parental support.

But the most serious charge against increased competition is that unchecked, far from raising standards across the board, it merely deepens the gulf between advantaged and disadvantaged schools. In a competitive market, popular schools have an incentive and opportunity to hoover up high-performing pupils and leave the difficult, more expensive and less productive cases to their rivals.

The Government's desire to increase competition is understandable. In education, as elsewhere, collaboration unsullied by competition can degenerate into self-regarding mediocrity. Those who long for a quiet life and trust to educational certainties should visit Wales, where school autonomy is not in vogue, where local authorities snaffle a quarter of the education budget and where GCSE scores are adrift of England's by 13 percentage points on average and worsening.

Yet pump-priming an educational market that lacks functioning checks and balances is asking for trouble. Schools need a properly policed admissions code, intermittent inspection, cash incentives to tackle disadvantage, and systems in place to curb their excesses. Unfortunately, they are not in place and, until they are, the Government's schools revolution will look more like a risky gamble than a safe bet.

Gerard Kelly, Editor E

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