Options in the open market

17th November 1995 at 00:00
Collaborate or Compete? Educational Partnerships in a Market Economy. Edited by Alastair Macbeath, Douglas McCreath and James Aitcheson Falmer Press #163;40. 0 7507 0383 0. #163;13.95. - 0 7507 0384 9. Consorting and Collaborating in the Education Marketplace. Edited by David Bridges and Chris Husbands, Falmer Press, #163;38. - 0 7507 0449 7. #163;13.95. 7507 0450 0

It is odd that two books with such overlapping titles should be published at almost the same time without the publisher making any effort to differentiate between them. Are they therefore competitors for the same niche in the market? Certainly they ask similar questions about how the quasi-market created by parental choice is transforming relationships between institutions, about who are thereby empowered, and about the likely survival of co-operation in the new structures and culture of competition.

The first book originated from a Scottish conference on the successes and stresses of partnership organised on behalf of the British Educational Management and Administration Society. The context prompted some useful reflections on different policy directions taken within the United Kingdom,but the text provides disappointingly little evidence of interaction between the participants.

Although no general conclusions are drawn from the wide range of experienced managers, planners and academics represented, the contributors were asked to look ahead constructively towards what the editors describe as a system of rolling adaptations to a more open market.

They do so in relation to (for example) its impact on the management of schools and their relationships with the residual planning functions of LEAs; to the multiple and potentially conflicting roles of parents as both consumers and partners; to the competing obligations of governing bodies as agents of the state and of the community, consumer councils, and protectors of their school; and to the possibilities for learning communities which are being created or highlighted by new forms of communication.

Although the implementing mechanisms may be very different, the contributors recognise the strength of international trends towards enhancing consumer power and making educational institutions simultaneously more autonomous and more accountable. It is also noted however that the lack of interest in Scotland in the opportunities supposedly offered by grant-maintained status may reflect a strong commitment to fair public provision.

The second book is more consistently critical of the culture of competition. But it is also richer in its accounts of how inventiveness and goodwill have allowed new forms of institutional collaboration to flourish in an often hostile political environment. In gathering together contributors able to describe initiatives in which they have been active participants, the editors display a keen interest in what constitutes rational behaviour in a marketplace and an empirical interest in identifying areas of collaboration which continue to seem both fairer and more effective than relying on market forces.

Again the scope of what is described ranges widely - small rural schools co-operating in order to survive, cross-phase liaison, schools combining so as to negotiate more successfully with their LEA and doing so in another LEA to create a professional college capable of resisting the worst fragmenting effects of opting-out, schools collaborating in their search for improvement or to provide better staff development. Mapping the emergence and outcomes of such collaborative networks constitutes the larger, descriptive part of the book, and has the appeal of lively participant observation. The second part is more analytical in examining the conditions in which such networks can succeed.

What saves the books from being merely collections of more and less interesting fragments is a shared belief in the possibilities and benefits of co-operation even in the competitive quasi-market which the government has promoted.

That belief is not a sentimental attachment to past notions of an education service. It is recognised that institutional competition is not new, and that some forms of institutional co-operation are themselves driven by self-interest and may work neither to the benefit of consumers nor of sensible planning. But competition without some clear sense of fairness and public interest will impoverish educational provision and distort the values which educational institutions should embody. Both books encourage practical alternatives.

Tony Edwards is professor of education at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne.

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