Market madness #4 A good system can help schools improve

A series of short posts about the marketisation of public education: #4 A good system can help schools improve.

Whenever I am asked to explain English secondary education to foreign visitors I usually start by saying that there is no English ‘system’. I then try to describe the rather random pattern of overlapping provision which cannot be dignified by the term ‘system’. Different areas have different permutations of 11-16 schools, 11-18 schools, sixth form and FE colleges with overlapping catchments, degrees of selection and market behaviours and a frightening lack of coherence or planning. The whole is so clearly less than the sum of the parts that I’m not surprised when my visitors look at me with pity.

In his excellent post ‘Teacher quality and education structures’, David Pavett tells the  story of visitors to the room-sized early computers who were given wire cutters and encouraged to snip wires at random to show that the system could cope with such broken connections thanks to its built-in redundancy. David uses this example to show how system redundancy can compensate for parts failure and to argue that it is quite wrong to assume that the performance of a system cannot be greater than that of its component parts or that a school or education system cannot be better than its teachers.

In fact the very opposite is the case. A strong system with plenty of opportunities for partnership, sharing and support can be greater than the sum of its parts because it has lots of redundant ‘wiring’ which shores up performance when necessary. So inter-institutional ‘wiring’ can help to improve schools.

David goes on to contrast a market system with a more ‘connection-rich system’. The former has hardly any inter-institutional ‘wiring’ as each school has to behave as a competitor and avoid sharing anything. In the latter, schools see each other as partners and can support each other by sharing a lot.

For example, if a group of schools in an area routinely share their expertise, this can come into its own when one school suddenly faces a dip in performance, staff shortages or long term absence. Staff can be part-seconded to help out and colleagues will already know how to offer, or ask for, help.  If departments in several schools share resources and teaching methods and build up a store of good practice and strong support networks, this will be a great help with changes to curriculum or assessment methods or shifts in student numbers. Also, relating jointly to external partners such as universities, employers or cultural organisations can lead to a stronger, richer and more cost-effective input from those organisations.

A strong system also promotes system leadership as opposed to purely institutional leadership. Groups of schools can think of their students as part of a wider community of learners and the development of strong distinctive or specialist offers driven by demand can be made available to all rather than being exclusive to one school as part of a search for competitive advantage.

However, all of this requires a culture of openness and trust between schools and an investment in the ‘wiring’ and the process of partnership. Schools need to accept some loss of autonomy while the benefits for everyone clearly outweigh the disadvantages. But clearly in the short term collaboration requires more effort than isolationism.

So, a good education system needs more ‘wiring’ but this does not mean more costly bureaucracy or layers of coordination. New technologies can facilitate communication and resource sharing between the practitioners who know best what they need without needing much top-down control.

The market won’t help the system function better. It rips out much of the ‘wiring’ and forces different sections to function without any support from others. This makes them more likely to break down, sometimes beyond repair.

For the time-being we are stuck with the logic of competition and incoherent markets in education. Should we simply settle for being prisoners of this logic or could we start to subvert it by putting in our own wiring piece by piece? Slow and painstaking though it may be, it might be the only way to start creating the real education system we need bit by bit from the parts to a better whole.

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

Market madness #7 What markets do to us

About Eddie Playfair

Principal of Newham Sixth Form College (NewVIc) East London. Blogging about education, politics and culture in a personal capacity. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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