Why teachers should learn to love the market

6th March 2009 at 00:00
Stop worrying about the business model: it is the only way to give schools the freedom they want

Few people in education would disagree that 20 years of centralisation has seen the autonomy of teachers and heads significantly reduced. It was the main problem noted by Professor Andrew Pollard in his impassioned critique of the English schools system which appeared on this page last week. But it is difficult to see why he and others choose to blame this phenomenon on "the application of a business model to education".

After all, the central tenet of the laissez-faire economics they criticise is decentralisation: that individuals are better placed to make decisions about their lives than the state. It takes a particularly hazy grasp of economics to argue, as Professor Pollard does, that "the (education) system, particularly in England, is now tightly regulated in almost every respect so that market principles can be maintained".

Market principles, of course, require regulation in order to be as unburdensome as possible. If, for example, the Government decided to design a national strategy for tractor production - with targets for the number of tractors to be produced - it would have the effect of destroying the free market in tractors (as Stalin helpfully illustrated).

Ever tighter regulation suggests not markets, but their opposite: nationalisation. To take an example closer to home, the post-war Labour government's campaign to seize "the commanding heights of the economy" is a much better analogy for the ongoing attempt by its counterpart today to seize control of schools than the latest banking crisis, which is, if anything, the result of too little regulation. And just as the industries that were nationalised in the 1940s collapsed under the weight of the bureaucracies they spawned, the education system is now threatened with suffocation by quango and five-year plan.

If we follow this analogy to its logical conclusion, it would suggest that the best way to resolve this problem of overweening central government control is to apply "market principles" to deregulate our stifled education system and liberate our teachers to innovate. This is why I am frustrated by the opposition within the teaching profession to even the most cautious market reforms, such as the academies programme or the Conservative Party's plans to allow new schools to be set up by groups of parents and teachers, charities or businesses.

It seems to make no sense for teachers, and their unions, continually to decry centralisation while at the same time campaigning against the devolution of authority from central and local government to individual schools run by independent providers.

I think this opposition is probably caused by a combination of two factors. First, a reflexive dislike towards the language of economics, such as "markets" and "competition" in the context of schools and a fear that using it somehow commodifies children - although the commodity in a schools market is education and children are the beneficiaries. Second, a widespread hostility among teachers to parental choice (and indeed parents), which would underpin a market economy in education.

But this hostility is self-defeating because a market in schools would also benefit teachers. It would give them the freedom to innovate, try out new ideas, and even - at least if the Conservative Party's plans were enacted - the ability to set up their own schools. What could be more valuable in raising the status of the profession than a new class of teacher-entrepreneurs?

The benefits to teachers can be seen from recent polls in countries that have implemented some market reforms. In this country, a recent survey of supply teachers found 86 per cent would choose an academy for their next placement, compared with just 3.7 per cent who would choose a comprehensive school. It is also worth noting that academies are hugely popular among newly qualified teachers and Teach First graduates.

In other countries that have reformed their state sectors in line with market principles - including Sweden and the United States - teachers also prefer to work in schools run by non-government providers, primarily because they have more autonomy.

A recent poll of Swedish staff found that 72 per cent of teachers in "free schools" (which are run by independent providers and upon which the Tories' proposed reforms are based) "enjoyed their work", compared with 59 per cent in the government-run state sector. Teachers in "free schools" were also more likely to feel that they were learning new things, planning their own work and taking their own initiative.

A similar survey in the US found that teachers in charter schools, which are also run by independent providers, were more involved in establishing curriculum, setting discipline policy, hiring new teachers and spending budgets than their counterparts in government-run schools. In fact, the first charter schools were set up by an American teachers' union, which was fed up with its members' lack of autonomy.

Essentially, these types of market reform are the only option on the table for increasing professional autonomy. It is not feasible to expect the Government to remain as a monopoly provider - as Professor Pollard and the unions seem to - while devolving all power to schools and teachers. If politicians remain responsible for schools, it is only to be expected that they will want to have a say in how they are run and what is taught in them. Only by making independent providers responsible for schools in the context of a market economy can we reverse the pattern of the past 20 years and free schools from central government command and control.

If the teaching profession won't accept that the only real option for boosting autonomy is to embrace these reforms, then we will be stuck in the quagmire of national strategies, challenges and plans for years to come.

Sam Freedman, Head of the education unit, Policy Exchange.

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