Schools as businesses? No thanks

27th February 2009 at 00:00
The collapse of the financial world shows the danger of running education as a market system

Suppose a school ran itself like a bank. Obsessed with narrow, short-term targets such as improvement in national test scores, its profits and league table position might well soar. Impressed by slick marketing and presentational strategies, Ofsted, just like the Financial Services Authority, would no doubt be convinced that something which is so "successful" must really be excellent. In due course, the school governors would award the head a Pounds 1 million bonus and a knighthood would presumably follow.

But what would happen when the charade comes to an end and we remember that the school is a school? When we discover that its test results came about through boring and drilling the students? When we see the dismal scores for children's long-term commitment to learning, we may feel the school's achievements really resemble the balance sheet of Lehman Brothers.

But it couldn't happen like that, could it? Because, although schools are responsible for society's most precious assets, they are not banks, are they?

Learners must be supported and developed through skilled teaching, rather than by trading in the markets. And any profit does not belong to the provider but to the learner themselves and to society as a whole. Sources of potential "loss" must be treated with particular care, for the education system cannot exclude those with learning difficulties to fend for themselves or make them redundant in a restructuring.

We are all caught up in history. The application of a business model to education and other public services has its roots in the Conservative governments of the 1980s It spread under Labour to become the established policy prescription. It has dominated education for the past 20 years. The system, particularly in England, is now tightly regulated in almost every respect so that market principles can be maintained.

However, this centralised, target-driven pressure for performance is an echo of the economic model that has now collapsed. In education, its weaknesses have been apparent for many years, with stubborn problems in enhancing standards further and in tackling underperformance of some groups. Annoyingly, the influence of social class just won't go away, it seems.

Ideas are interconnected in our culture. We may expect that the collapse of financial certainties will gradually be felt in other areas of public life as values, priorities and ways of doing things are gradually reappraised. Space may now open up to provide opportunities for new thinking about how education is provided.

So, setting the business model aside, what would result if our education system was based on what we actually know about how people learn?

My view is that we understand quite a lot about this now. This understanding is useful when represented through broad, evidence-based principles to inform professional judgment, rather than narrow targets which risk constraining it.

There are already excellent research syntheses from many parts of the world. The UK's Teaching and Learning Research Programme, of which I am a director, has drawn on these and its own work to identify 10 principles for effective teaching and learning (see below). Such principles affirm the importance of a broad, holistic view of education, of meaningful subject knowledge and the need for children to be actively engaged in their learning.

They emphasise the significance of high-quality structuring and feedback by teachers. They affirm the role of informal learning, with parents and peers as well as in educational institutions.

They assert how pupils need schools in which teachers are learning and developing too, and where reflective professional development processes drive school improvement. And they emphasise how institutional and government policies must be fully congruent with teaching and learning policies.

For an educationally sound future, teachers, policymakers and researchers need to use such knowledge to build relationships and new forms of understanding about high quality education. In particular, to be politically sustainable, the latter must resonate with the public as a whole and be seen by the media as legitimate. What we need to do is move beyond simplistic rhetoric about education.

In particular, what works cannot be prescribed by a government agency, by a white-coated researcher or by a newspaper. Schools are not franchises, turning out the same product in every location. Although there are many recurring issues, what works depends on the child, the school, the teacher and the circumstances. Teachers need the skills to judge which techniques that they have in their professional toolkit are most likely to be effective in any given case.

For those willing to look, significant building blocks of this new vision already exist, but an important problem concerns whether a government - present or future - can bring itself to trust the teaching profession. The feeling of control in a centralised system must be hard to give up, even if aspects of it are dysfunctional.

What we need, then, is a new balance between professional accountability and autonomy. We need a framework for trusting teachers, political parties with the vision and commitment to bring it about and teacher associations with the imagination to see how such developments would enhance the interests of their members.

This is certainly no sinecure for the teaching profession, for it would mean that teachers and heads would have to take more responsibility for their actions. They would not be able to blame government edicts, methodology or scripted lessons, or to lean on them too heavily. There would need to be debate and learning in all staffrooms. However, the growth in teacher autonomy, expertise and fulfilment, allied to the long-term educational benefits for children, would surely make this worthwhile?

- Teaching and Learning Research Programme, 'Principles into Practice: what is, and what might be?', www.tlrp.orgpubcommentaries.html or in summary, www.tlrp.orgfindings

Andrew Pollard, Professor at the Institute of Education, London University, and a director of the Teaching and Learning Research Programme.

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