It's high time we put our heads together

1st November 2013 at 00:00
Competition is good, but free-market thinking damages schools' ability to cooperate - and performance pay could make that worse

In his book Mutual Aid: a factor of evolution, the Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin began by noting his observations of the different species on planet Earth: "Who are the fittest? Those who are continually at war with each other, or those who support one another? We at once see that those animals which acquire habits of mutual aid are undoubtedly the fittest."

This is true of humanity in all walks of life, and nowhere more so than in teaching. We are at our very best when working together in a collegiate fashion in the interests of the children we educate. But I want to suggest that a culture of perverse incentives has developed, one that is preventing us from being as collegiate as we undoubtedly ought to be. This is especially the case within secondaries, as the movement towards greater school autonomy gains pace around the world.

Teamwork and cooperative practice may be quite strong within many schools and via the internet. But when it comes to working cooperatively with neighbouring institutions, we appear to exhibit very different patterns of behaviour. Few teachers I know have regular working relationships with their equivalents in the school next door. By this, I mean cooperating over resources, schemes of work and other joint enterprises. Most school departments seem to keep such planning very much "in-house".

On the face of it, this seems exceedingly odd; after all, if a teacher develops an outstanding lesson plan or resource, surely their first and most basic human impulse ought to be to send it to every other department they can reach? If our goal as a profession is to facilitate high-quality education for all children - and it clearly should be - sharing everything free of charge and without condition should be our first thought.

Yet this is far from the case for many teachers. I imagine that if the average head of department went into the headteacher's office and proudly announced that he had given away all his resources and schemes of work to a nearby school for free, the reaction would be far from congratulatory, especially if they pertained to an examined subject such as an A-level course. Why? Because in the present culture of "marketisation" our local schools are not really seen as our neighbours any more. They are, in fact, often viewed as rivals.

Progress at a price

To be clear, I have no doubt that the competitive ethos between local schools has been beneficial to the quality of teaching and to schools generally over the past 25 years. I am sure that the constant pressure of league-table positions and the burdens imposed by the number crunchers at England's schools inspectorate Ofsted have had a positive effect. But it should be acknowledged that this approach has a price. Part of that price is that too many of us have become not only uncooperative with our neighbours but actively hostile. Schools trying to poach one another's prospective sixth-form students, for example, is not only unseemly, but, in some cases, frankly demeaning to us as a profession.

Why does the marketisation of schools lead to this kind of behaviour? In his early writings, Karl Marx argued that alienation was a major flaw in the capitalist system. He described a process whereby the competitive ethos of the free market estranges us from one another. Competition may lead to better "output" in the short term, but the process itself causes us to reject collegiality and cooperation. Applying this to schools, we start to understand the problem we face. Competing with our neighbours distances us from them.

As an old-fashioned liberal, I quite like a bit of competition in the free market; in fact, I think it is our surest route to freedom. But to apply free-market thinking to education has always seemed to me to be fundamentally missing the point. We are a public service, not a business. As such, our primary motivation should be to cooperate, to raise the bar for all.

There is potential for this problem to be further compounded by the introduction of performance-related pay around the world, which may risk alienation in individual schools. Given that, for many schools, results will be a primary driver of pay, competition between departments is likely to become a real issue. This is because generating better results does not in itself increase the operating budget.

Performance pay may be fine if we are genuinely encouraging staff to perform better, and then rewarding them all for better performance. In such a world, the incentive to help others improve as much as yourself would be strong. But let's be realistic: schools will be implementing systems of performance pay within a capped budget, meaning that staff have a limited pot to compete for. The day that raising a teacher's salary requires someone else to miss out - or even causes a drop in the salary of their colleagues - is the day we are all in big trouble. This is a long way off yet and most schools seem to be implementing pay policies that are pretty sensible, but the potential is there to cause further harm to collegiality in the name of marketisation.

Government and individual schools need to be wary of these dangers, and must ensure that their policies do not further thwart cooperative practice in our profession.

Tom Finn-Kelcey is head of politics at Queen Elizabeth's Grammar School in Faversham, England.

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