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 time the "C' word was mentioned. There's been much excitement in England about rushed legislation, legions of academies and free schools, but little attention given to the one idea motivating all this activity: competition. Underpinning the Coalition's plans for education is the belief that by allowing schools more freedoms and 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, especially in Wales, recoil at the word "competition". They say education is a collegiate endeavour that works best when guided by another "C" word, "collaboration". Which is curious as market practices have been in the system for years - funding that follows the pupil and some parental choice, for instance.

Nor is the competitive instinct lacking within or between schools. 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."

Conversely, competition in a public space like education has obvious limits. A market in schools isn't much use in rural areas that struggle to support 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.

But the most serious charge against increased competition is that unchecked, far from raising standards across the board, it 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.

Westminster's desire to increase competition is understandable. Collaboration unsullied by competition can sink into self-regarding mediocrity. There is certainly a risk of such complacency in Wales. Since the removal of key aspects of competition from the education system, GCSE scores have grown adrift from those in England, by 13 percentage points on average and worsening. Meanwhile, local authorities have snaffled more than a quarter of the education budget. The School Effectiveness Framework, with its focus on communal responsibility and sharing professional knowledge, will further worry those in favour of reviving competition.

But Wales should resist the temptation to follow England's example just yet. 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 to curb their excesses. Unfortunately, they are not in place and until they are, England's schools revolution will look more like a risky gamble than a surefire bet.

Gerard Kelly



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