A series of short posts about the marketisation of public education: #2 “Choice and diversity”
“Choice and diversity” was the last government’s euphemism for marketisation in public services, putting a positive spin on something which is not particularly popular with public service users. In education, it meant promoting new providers and encouraging competition between them. This was sometimes also described as “contestability”.
Looking back to those pre-2010 days, this version of marketisation seems pretty tame, but it paved the way for the current government’s market strategy for education.
The idea is that good schools will attract more students and less good schools will be motivated to improve by the competition for students from the good schools. The less popular schools might get some support to improve or be rebranded and relaunched with new leadership. The possibility of decline, failure or closure sharpens everyone’s focus on doing better.
And we like choice don’t we? When we’re shopping we like to be able to choose between different products, check prices and value for money and make our own judgement about what’s best for us. Choice is a good thing – up to a point.
But do we really want to shop around and choose between different educational offers for ourselves or our children? Can education be both a public service and a commodity? Isn’t it too important to be placed in the hands of ompeting providers based on what they are prepared to offer within the local market? We’re paying for it anyway so surely we want the best possible public education for ourselves as well as for others as a civic right.
As with our other public services, we want education to respond to our needs and aspirations and ultimately to be accountable to us; all of us. Any choice and diversity in what is available; specialist programmes or facilities, experimental or innovative approaches, should be available to all within a system of public education and not be the result of luck eg: “I happen to attend an excellent specialist music school”.
When the market is combined with the lack of a coherent national framework, the absence of local whole-system leadership or planning, the result is actually a loss of choice and a lack of diversity. In post-16 education for example, providers or systems need to be of a certain size to offer the full range of courses to students including minority subjects like A level German or Classical Civilisation. Encouraging new smaller competing providers can give the impression of more choice – of provider, but lead to less choice – of course. Where there are many competing sixth forms there may be enough demand overall but no single provider can run a viable A level German or Classical Civilisation group, thereby restricting choice for everyone.
So we should be very cautious about the panacea of more choice and diversity in education as we could find ourselves losing more than we gain.
All the Market Madness posts:
Market madness #1 Oversubscribed?
Market madness #2 “Choice and diversity”
Market madness #3 The well-informed educational consumer
Market madness #4 A good system can help schools improve
Market madness #5 Qualifications as currency
Market madness #6 Students as commodities: premium, discount and remaindered