Don't feed the bear, it's too risky

10th October 2008 at 01:00
A free market is likely to simply ignore sub-prime schools but great leadership is bullish and can drive up standards

Governments across the world are still reeling from the fallout from the financial crisis. Billions of dollars of taxpayers' money are being pumped into the system in an attempt to prevent the global banking industry from going into meltdown. Financial markets are losing confidence in banks and share prices are fluctuating wildly.

So what are the implications for education? On one level the answer is obvious: money will be tight for the next few years. Public money that is used to prop up the economy is money not available to spend on public services.

An economy in decline generates less income and therefore less tax. While we know some economists would argue that times of economic gloom are exactly when spending on public services should be maintained, to help keep the economy moving and thereby stimulate recovery, we also know that existing levels of government borrowing make this challenging.

On the other hand, recruitment into teaching could benefit. The relative security of the profession is attractive in hard economic times.

But on another level, there is a more long-term implication for our education system. The recent turmoil has prompted even the most ardent supporters of the free market economy to question if this is the best way of running things.

Take the new Conservative plans, for example, which would make it possible for parents, charities and private firms to step in and run their own "free" schools in place of those currently seen as failing. These schools would be independently run but funded by the state and would be able to choose their own curriculum and qualifications.

The idea is that the market would drive up quality in schools in the same way it has in provision of other public services, such as telecommunications, postal services and energy provision. The mechanism of supply and demand would naturally bring about efficiencies, better value for money and the removal of poor quality provision.

The problem is that the recent downturn brings into question the notion that market forces will operate effectively in those areas of our own system most in need of improvement: schools facing challenging circumstances. Markets are based upon taking risks and it may well be that no one in the private sector will want to, or even be able to, buy the risk of running schools in our inner cities, even if higher fees are available. The temptation for the commercial and the not-for-profit sector will always be to focus on the most profitable part of the system and leave the state to deal with the rest. The collapse of the sub-prime mortgage sector in the United States is a classic example of where the commercial sector has been unable to deal with the challenge of the most fragile end of the market.

A parallel exists with the provision of healthcare in the United States. While the private sector provides a quality service for the majority of the population, the federal government has to step in to support those unable to afford health insurance. The market on its own does not seem to be able to cater for the fringes of the system, the very part we need to change if we are to create the kind of educational transformation needed for some of our most disadvantaged young people.

Contrary to popular belief, it is hard to find any research evidence that the market actually does drive up standards in the education sector. The idea of education vouchers has been around since the 1980s in the United States and while take-up has been patchy, there are sufficient numbers for comparative study. The US education department published a report in 2006 that looked at the difference between the performance of pupils in state and private systems. While the raw data showed that the private sector significantly outperformed state schools, when the characteristics of pupils, such as family background and disadvantage, were taken into account, there was no significant difference in many of the areas measured.

But if the problem is tackling underachieving schools in challenging circumstances, then there is another way. Only a few years ago London had a high proportion of failing secondary schools, with Ofsted reporting that more than 40 were in need of serious improvement. Today that figure is nearer five. There is no single reason for this improvement, but a major factor has probably been the development of a locally based network of successful school leaders that has teamed up with schools facing difficulties.

The successful work of the National College for School Leadership's London leadership strategy, as part of London Challenge, has been seen as a very effective model, not surprisingly, and is being expanded to other areas of the country. While the introduction of academies in some parts of London has meant some structural change, the biggest positive change is likely to have been the development of these genuine collaboratives, which have ignored league table rivalries and been instrumental in sharing good practice across the system.

The irony is, of course, that instead of leaving the market to sort out the problem, successes in London have been achieved through the intervention of local leaders in developing social rather than financial capital, both within the profession and among young people themselves.

Of course healthy competition will drive up standards. But what the crisis teaches us is that the market has its limitations and we ignore them at our peril.

Andy Buck's `Making school work: a practical approach to secondary school leadership', available at

Andy Buck Partnership headteacher at the Eastbrook-Jo Richardson partnership in Barking and Dagenham, east London.


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