Running schools like businesses will not give us freedom

13th March 2009 at 00:00

When the market reigned supreme in the late 1980s, school choice and vouchers were declared a panacea for school improvement (Comment, March 6). Wait long enough and education policies come full circle. Sam Freedman's column is the latest of a growing number of calls for greater competition and choice in schools. Freedman and his think tank, Policy Exchange, are the architects behind the reincarnation of the Conservatives' education policy.

Before David Cameron becomes our next premier, parents and teachers need to decide if the hostility to markets is misplaced and whether choice and competition can lead to social justice in education. Prime Minister Cameron would implement a "supply-side revolution" in which parents, educational charities, existing school federations and philanthropists would be encouraged to establish alternative schools. Public money would follow the child and a school would thrive or fall on a glut or dearth of students. This, many argue, is the idea of competition - reform or perish.

But the dominant factors in schools' performance in severely disadvantaged areas are not necessarily the schools themselves but the social problems facing the wider community. If schools aren't sufficiently powerful to overcome the effects of social disadvantage, then simply exposing a school to competition will not improve it, but merely pile on more problems. School choice becomes a mechanism to satisfy parents without improving the quality of education.

In Philadelphia's schools, middle-class children monopolise the good schools, while the most disadvantaged attend the "sink" schools. Educational markets, like other systems based on choice and competition, stratify children and exacerbate existing inequalities.

What about the claim that the market leads to greater teacher autonomy? Teachers' autonomy in publicly funded US schools is severely restricted and much less than British teachers enjoy. Freedman cites reasons for choosing charter schools over public schools - "establishing curriculum, setting discipline policy, hiring new teachers, spending budgets". In the US, all these decisions are usually made at the district level, occasionally by the principal, but very rarely by teachers.

The Conservatives are right to criticise the one-size-fits-all, top-down approach, the obsession with paperwork and bureaucracy. But that does not warrant a complete dismantling of the state sector in favour of the market.

James Richardson, Thouron scholar, Graduate School of Education, University of Pennsylvania; former head of humanities, Sale High School, Manchester.

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