Education 2020: market or system?

What will education in England be like in 2020? As the 2015 general election approaches, what are the possible futures for education in England? An election is a democratic moment where we are offered a choice of futures and we hope to recognise our own hopes in some of those futures. Education may not be a decisive issue in the 2015 general election but we can still imagine different futures for it by the time of the next general election in 2020. Here are the outlines of two possible futures:

1. An education market:

Following the 2015 election, the political majority at Westminster remained committed to our current direction of travel. Continuing public austerity meant less public spending on education while the rhetoric was even more strident about ‘UK plc’ needing to become ever more globally competitive and ‘win the race to the top’ both economically and educationally in the PISA tables. Politicians’ response to Britain’s continued economic decline was to become even more uncompromising about demanding personal responsibility for high standards and ‘no excuses’ from individual students, teachers, schools and colleges if they achieve anything less than average in various national measures.

We now talk routinely of the ‘education market’ just like the ‘energy market’. As with other utilities, the landscape is dominated by a small number of competing national chains, now known as companies, with national contracts. These are the ‘big six’, each of which operates across all regions and in primary, secondary and post-16. Each company has a strong brand identity and has the capacity to innovate at company level, it supports its own teacher training and development and its own research capacity. Many of them also produce teaching and assessment materials commercially and offer a range of paid-for services to students and parents. They have massive budgets and are not subject to any local scrutiny or accountability and most are quoted on the stock exchange. They maintain close relationships with the national commissioners and politicians who sign off their contracts, regulate their activities and decide the performance measures they will be judged by. They are generally regarded as ‘too big to fail’.

The various national companies offer a range of unique selling points and distinctive strengths to their customers. Some of the chains are a little more focused on inclusion and some on elitism, some emphasise sports or the arts a bit more while others have a slightly more technological bias. These ‘flavours’ are often linked to particular commercial partnerships.

In order to stimulate competition, the government has allowed the trend towards greater selection and stratification of schools to permit companies to offer ‘different types of school for different types of learner’. So although each company aims to cater for all types of learner, their size allows them to engage in ‘cherry picking’ and segregation of students with particular aptitudes and talents at a younger and younger age. Specialist technical schools are common as are highly selective ‘super-grammars’. One company’s initiative to create a hyper-selective national residential sixth form college aiming to get all every one of its students into Oxbridge soon led to the other companies following suit and selection for some of these colleges now starts at age 14.

All the companies market themselves vigorously and their slick TV commercials tell inspiring personal stories of student growth, fulfilment and success within the company system. At the local level, schools are described in terms of their parent company rather than their school name and the company is the brand that really counts. Students generally study within a single company throughout their schooling, benefiting from continuity of staffing and ethos and this is seen as a strength. People even claim to be able to identify which company a student was schooled in based on their behaviour and attitudes.

The school curriculum is increasingly driven by the perceived needs of the economy, concentrating on the ‘core’ subjects or vocational tracks which, it is claimed, will help students find their place in the workforce and beat the global competition.

As public funding has continued to fall, companies are charging for more and more of the ‘extras’, including company-franchised mentoring and tutoring, sports, music, arts and outward bound activities.

University fees have been uncapped and there is real competition on price and companies have negotiated bulk deals with university groups offering preferential loans and bursaries to high achieving students. Adult education is purely about investing in one’s marketable skills and people have to borrow to pay a private provider for it, or persuade an employer to pay.

The national companies’ dominance of the market has led to some spectacular scandals and market failures, the solution to which is always seen as better regulation or changes in company management. Public campaigning is mainly focused on local difficulties rather than offering any coherent critique of the system, and when it is proposed, system reform is seen as unrealistic. Education debates or industrial disputes tend to be about the ineffectiveness or monopolistic excesses of a national company and the barriers to new entrants.

Many parents and students are satisfied customers of the company they have chosen, they buy into its ethos and feel loyalty to it. This education market is diverse and seems to offer something for everyone, although the ‘top’ companies seem to find ways to move low-performing students out of their provision. Nationally, the achievement gap is widening but somehow this is glossed over as the spectacular results of the highest performing students are highlighted.

As the 2020 election campaign gets going, one of the major parties is advocating a single guaranteed ‘national lifelong learning fund’ which the state will make available to the national companies to fund their students’ education from 14 onwards to be repaid by the individuals to their company once they get a job. The politics of education is consumer politics and we hear very little advocacy of a democratically accountable public education, let alone the neighbourhood comprehensive school.

2. An Education Service:

Following the 2015 election, the new political majority at Westminster didn’t have a particularly coherent vision of what they wanted to do about education but they did agree that the solutions did not all lie in Westminster or the unfettered market. During the campaign, they had been struck by the level of popular dissatisfaction with the incoherence and chaos people were experiencing and impressed by the desire for change. Continuing with the reforms of the previous 5 years was clearly not an option.

In the absence of a strong ideological agenda, the politicians asked themselves whether the answers might perhaps be found in the imagination and daily practice of the people actually concerned with education. So within a few weeks of the election they launched a national Great Debate about the purpose and organisation of education in England. This willingness to listen to people turned out to be their most radical decision.

The Great Debate aimed to involve everyone in discussing a few simple questions:

  • What do we want from education?
  • What is an educated person?
  • How do we ensure that everyone gets the best possible education?

The initial Great Debate was given a month in order to focus everyone’s minds and instil a sense of urgency. It was conducted on-line, using social media, in public meetings large and small, inside and outside school classrooms and in outreach activity to ensure that everyone, including children and young people, had the opportunity to express their views. Public involvement in the process was very high, different opinions were respected and the views of ‘experts’ and education professionals were given equal weight to those of everyone else.

As the Great Debate got going, people got excited. They were being listened to and they were setting the agenda. Having voted to hand power to politicians, they were now being asked how that power should be used. The discussions generated many brilliant ideas and the deliberation and aggregation process throughout the month meant that the most popular themes started to emerge and people could return to the debate at different stages.

It became clear quite early on that there was a real consensus that England needs a common national education system with both social and personal objectives to meet the needs of all its people.

One of the most popular emerging themes was “education needs to be like the NHS” and that was actually one of the key outcomes: a groundswell of support for a comprehensive national education system based on agreed common aims, cooperation and universalism rather than competition and selection.

Another outcome was a real celebration of the work of teachers and pride in the work of students. Many participants said that learning directly about what happens in our schools and universities had surprised and impressed them and inspired them to get more involved themselves.

Following this Great Debate, the school curriculum was redefined in terms of human flourishing as well as the fundamental knowledge and skills that everyone needs to build on to be a successful contributor to society. There was support for both breadth and specialisation at upper secondary level with no options being closed off at any age.

Once the national aims were agreed, the new system needed to be built from the existing one with collaboration around the nationally agreed shared aims, core entitlements and funding as givens. The English regions were given the right to elect education councils to oversee the development of the system in their region using all the educational resources available. These elections gave the new councils a strong mandate to develop a distinctive approach for their area within the national aims. The limited funding available was boosted by releasing the ‘partnership premium’, spending previously tied up in competition and duplication. There was room for specialisation as well as regional and local innovation and some regions are now leading on different themes and sharing their work nationally and they have created new forums for action research, evaluation, curriculum and professional development.

The talents and skills of the nation’s young people were increasingly recognised and celebrated including their contribution to community and cultural life and the impact of their research. These are all valued within the school leavers’ National Baccalaureate.

We are starting to see a renaissance of adult education in various forms as universities work with other parts of the education service to reach out more and respond to the needs and interests of all adults in their region. Reading groups, current affairs groups, cultural activity and community organising and volunteering feed in to university extramural programmes with a consequential strengthening of both local and virtual community solidarity.

In fact, the Great Debate which started in the summer of 2015 has never really stopped. People found that they wanted to contribute to education and to help shape the new system. The momentum of 2015 was built on through local education forums across the country which informed the work of the new education councils and helped hold them to account between elections. People’s attachment to their education service and the idea of public service generally was strengthened by this activity.

By 2020 educational inequality has not been abolished but there is some evidence that the gaps are narrowing. Not everyone is satisfied with the rate of progress and funding remains tight. People are proud of the ‘new’ system, positive about its contribution to society and optimistic about its future. There does seem to be a consensus around the aims and values established through the Great Debate. By the time of the 2020 election, all the major parties are committed to the system and the policy differences are mostly about resource allocation and curriculum priorities. One of the parties is advocating another Great Debate about how the banking and finance system can help meet human needs.

There is choice and diversity within this comprehensive system and we hear very little advocacy of greater competition or market incentives. There is friendly rivalry between different parts of the service as they strive to offer the best to their communities but this is combined with a commitment to sharing what they do best to help the whole service improve.

In conclusion: making our path

These are just two of many possible alternative futures for education. If we want a future shaped by us rather than by the market, then voting in the general election is only the start. We need to use democratic means to decide where we want to go and also to help get us there. In one of his poems, the Spanish poet Antonio Machado says:

“there is no path, the path is made by walking.”

So let’s get up and start walking…

Based on a talk given at the Society for Educational Studies annual seminar, Cambridge, 20th February 2015.


About Eddie Playfair

I am a Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC) having previously been a college principal for 16 years and a teacher before that. I live in East London and I blog in a personal capacity about education and culture. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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