The marketisation of the school system in England


Under the new British government, marketisation and privatisation in the school system takes two forms. First, all schools will be able to become Academies: they gain more freedom over the curriculum and admissions and more control over staff because, being under private school legislation, they are not bound by national or local union agreements on pay and conditions. Secondly alternative providers – private organisations and groups of parents and teachers – will be allowed to open up so-called ‘free schools’, again outside local authorities and funded by government.

We will promote the reform of schools in order to ensure that new providers can enter the state school system in response to parental demand; that all schools have greater freedom over the curriculum; and that all schools are held properly to account.
We will give parents, teachers, charities and local communities the chance to set up new schools, as part of our plans to allow new providers to enter the state school system in response to parental demand. (The Coalition: our programme for government. Cabinet Office 2010)

The Conservative-Liberal Democrat extension of marketisation and privatisation in the school system takes two forms. First, all schools, primary as well as secondary, will be able to become Academies (starting with those graded ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted, which can become Academies in September. Like Labour’s Academies, they are outside local authorities, funded directly by government. They gain more freedom over the curriculum and admissions and more control over staff because, being under private school legislation, they are not bound by national or local union agreements on pay and conditions.

However the new government’s academies differ from Labour’s in that they will not have government-funded new buildings, they will not have sponsors, and there is no necessary change in the governing body. In that respect they are similar to an earlier Conservative policy: grant-maintained schools which opted out of local authority control (though today, after 12 years of the Labour government, local authorities exercise little control over schools). Importantly, the motivation for academies is different. Blair’s conception was that while the pressure of market relations resulting from ‘choice and diversity’ was a factor, the decisive driver of improvement was innovation driven by external sponsors.

…an external sponsor […] brings not only a financial endowment but also vision, commitment, and a record of success from outside the state school system’ (Blair quoted in Shaw 2004, p. 1).

For the ConDems the decisive driver is market competition, with increased school autonomy enabling them to respond to parental choice; hence sponsors are not needed (and in any case the pool of suitable applicants was already drying up under Labour).

The second form of marketisation and privatisation is that alternative providers – private organisations and groups of parents and teachers – will be allowed to open up so-called ‘free schools’, again outside local authorities and funded by government.

Meanwhile, all schools are promised more autonomy through being freed from Labour’s bureaucratic prescription. ‘At the heart of this Government’s vision for education is a determination to give school leaders more power and control’ (Gove 2010). The national curriculum will be less detailed and school inspections eased.
The intention is that these measures will radically boost quasi-market relations in the school system. More autonomy for providers, and an increase in their number, will promote competition as parents’ freedom to choose from a range of schools, or even to set up their own, is increased. The intended outcome is that parents will choose higher-performing schools and this will drive up standards throughout the system as schools become more innovative in responding to consumer demands.

The Conservative governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major in the 1980s and 1990s had promoted market relations in the school system through parental choice and increased school autonomy, though within a prescriptive framework of a national curriculum and evaluation of performance. The Labour government of Tony Blair recognised that a limited element of parental choice of schools was not a powerful enough mechanism to drive reform, and relied instead on even more prescriptive state intervention. The new Conservative-Liberal Democrat agenda marks a return to the market model, re-engineered by expanding, diversifying and empowering the supply side in order to mobilise competitive demand.

This is an ambitious and risky project with no certainty of success. The extent to which suppliers and consumers will enter into market relations cannot be predicted, nor can the extent to which it will result in improved standards, and there is the danger of opposition and resistance. So what is the motivation? What drives government thinking? It can’t be explained simply as an ideological commitment to an increased role for markets and a reduced role for the state in the public sector, though Conservatives and Liberal Democrats share that ideological commitment. Governments are driven ultimately by material class interests, not ideology, though they conceptualise and operationalise those interests in ideological terms. On that basis there are five drivers of the government’s school marketisation policy:

  • to raise standards of attainment in order to produce more effectively the ‘human capital’ which is deemed necessary for the competitiveness of the economy
  • to promote social inclusion through ‘equality of opportunity’, for both social and economic reasons
  • to consolidate electoral support
  • to provide profitable opportunities for ‘edubusiness’
  • to promote a right-wing cultural agenda in education

These five purposes do not necessarily go harmoniously together. For example, the need to protect middle class advantage in the system for electoral reasons has to be juggled with the need for an element of equity both to both retain working class electoral support based on the belief that the system is sufficiently fair and to meet ‘human capital’ needs by raising the attainment of working-class pupils. ‘Edubusiness’ may not deliver in terms of pupil attainment, putting both economic needs and electoral support at risk, as Labour found with Serco operating Bradford local education authority provision. Particularly problematic is harmonising electoral support from the middle class, which depends on maintaining their privileged position in education as a positional good, while promoting equality of opportunity. Under Labour, reducing inequality was always subordinate to maintaining middle class advantage. So there is a continual political challenge for government to try to keep the four drivers aligned as much as possible, while also, in this period of economic recession, attempting to drastically reduce spending.

Nor are the five drivers equivalent in weight: the dominant purpose of marketisation is economic: to raise ‘standards’ to produce the future workforce that government and employers think the economy needs. (I say ‘think’ because exactly what those future labour requirements might be, and indeed the relationship between educational levels and economic competitiveness, is debatable.) Marketisation of school systems is a global agenda which the OECD has been actively promoting. In 2009 it published a report by Christopher Lubienski called Do quasi-markets foster innovation in education? A comparative perspective. The report begins by stating the economic imperative behind global education reform.

The education sector is often linked to innovation, particularly in its role in providing the training and skills associated with workforce innovations and economic growth. […] The new imperatives of the global economy require new skills, so school must innovate to find ways of meeting these demands. (Lubienski 2009, p. 3)

The European Union has also been a key agent in promoting the economic importance of education. At the European Council meeting held in March 2000 in Lisbon the Heads of State and Government set the Union a major strategic goal for 2010: ‘to become the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world, capable of sustainable economic growth with more and better jobs and greater social cohesion’ (European Council 2000). The Council emphasised that investment in education and training was of crucial importance in the European knowledge-based economy.

In England Tony Blair established this as the master narrative of Labour’s education policy:

Education is our best economic policy….This country will succeed or fail on the basis of how it changes itself and gears up to this new economy, based on knowledge. Education is now the centre of economic policy making for the future. (Blair 2005).

But the process of neo-liberal education reform in Europe has failed to meet its economic objectives. In July 2008 the European Commission produced a new document entitled Improving competences for the 21st Century: An Agenda for European Cooperation on Schools (Council of the European Union 2008) which proposed an agenda for cooperation between member states to step up the modernisation of school systems. It drew a balance-sheet of progress towards meeting the Lisbon targets for education and training.

…the majority of the benchmarks set for 2010 will not be reached in time, while in the case of the vital benchmark on literacy performance is in fact deteriorating. Attaining these benchmarks will require more effective national initiatives. (p. 4)

In England it has become evident that the limits of Labour’s strategy of top-down mandated reform in the school system were reached some years ago. Improvement in pupil performance as a result of the ‘standards agenda’ has plateaued (and in any case was over-estimated), while the equality gap remains as wide as ever. Employers’ representatives draw an overall negative balance-sheet of thirteen years of the Labour government’s education policy, particularly in terms of the level of education of those destined for middle- and lower-level jobs. Richard Lambert, director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, recently complained that the education system is failing pupils from poorer homes and producing exam results which “we ought to be ashamed of”. He said that money is being wasted in English schools, which have among the most generous government funding in the world but exam results that are beginning to trail behind competitor countries. Employers were struggling to recruit people with the right skills, even in the recession, but business leaders also have concerns about social ills such as illiteracy (Guardian 31 December 2009).

The Economist (5 December 2009, p. 38), also speaking on behalf of capital, made a similar analysis of Labour’s education policies, headed ‘An unacceptable term’s work’. ‘Some marks for effort but academic attainment is shockingly poor’. It noted that Britain educates a smaller proportion of its 15 to 19-year-olds than it did in 1995, unlike the rest of the 30 OECD countries except France, which still has 86% in education, compared to 71% in Britain. The Economist also noted that in the SATs tests at the end of primary school ‘the number of schools where all pupils achieved the minimum standard expected has slumped by a fifth. For the first time since the tests began in 1995, the number of pupils leaving primary school with an acceptable grasp of English fell.’ Further evidence in support of the employers’ concerns is provided by a new government-funded report by researchers at Sheffield university (The levels of attainment in literacy and numeracy of 13- to 19-year-olds in England, 1948-2009), which claims that 20% of 16 to 19-year-olds lack basic skills (Times Educational Supplement 7 May 2010).

The CBI’s education and skills survey 2010, Ready to grow: business priorities for education and skills, sets the agenda for Labour’s successor:

Over two thirds of employers (70%) want to see the new government making the employability skills of young people its top education priority, while 63% want to see a focus on improving basic standards of literacy and numeracy in schools and colleges. (CBI 2010, p. 10)

The focus here is on basic skills and interpersonal skills for employment in the middle and lower level jobs which, in spite of the rhetoric of the knowledge economy, are actually predicted to increase:

Without significant changes in policy, there will be a relatively similar number of low paying jobs in 2020 as in 2004. This trend will be driven by an expansion of employment in sectors and occupations where the incidence of low pay is currently high – such as retail and catering, and lower level service sector occupations. (Lawton 2009, p. 5).

This prediction needs to be qualified: as Allen and Ainley (2010) show in their book Lost Generation?, there is a shortage of jobs for young people. Unemployment among 16-24 year olds is edging towards 1 million and is likely to remain high as a consequence of the financial crash. While employers complain about the school supply-side, the demand-side is based on the expansion of an industrial reserve army of youth.

The Con-Dem government offers a radical solution to meeting the needs of capital. The focus is particularly on those students destined for the middle and lower levels of the workforce, which has enabled the Con-Dems to construct a discourse which harmonises the social and economic functions of schooling, allowing them to lay claim to the traditional Labour terrain of tackling social inequality in education. As Michael Gove said in his first major speech as secretary of state for education:

…the ethical imperative of our education policy is quite simple – we have to make opportunity more equal. We have to overcome the deep, historically entrenched, factors which keep so many in poverty, which deprive so many of the chance to shape their own destiny, which have made us the sick man of Europe when it comes to social mobility. It is a unique sadness of our times that we have one of the most stratified and segregated school systems in the developed world.  (Gove 2010)

The government’s marketisation policy will offer the opportunity for companies to run schools for profit, on management contracts and, if the law changes, by owning as well as running schools. But the government’s overriding educational goal is the profitability of the future workforce for capital as a whole, not the profitability of the small sector of the economy represented by school edubusiness companies – that is also a desirable, but secondary and subordinate, aim.

Public schools funded by the state but run by private providers

Public schools funded by the state but run by private providers are a feature of many national school systems, including some in the EU: the Netherlands, Spain, France, Flanders in Belgium, some regions of Italy, Denmark, Ireland, mainly historically by religious organisations, as in England with denominational schools. Germany and Sweden allow such schools to be run on a for-profit basis (Hatcher 2005a). The ConDems draws on two models in addition to Labour’s academies: US charter schools and Swedish ‘free schools’.

In 2008 there were 4556 charter schools in a school system of 125,000 schools. There are different types of charter schools. Some are run by community or charitable organisations on a non-profit basis. Some are run on a for-profit basis by private companies, either operated under management contracts from the school district or state, or owned by the companies themselves. Swedish independent or ‘free schools’ are non-fee-paying public schools owned and run by a variety of educational providers, ranging from non-profit co-operatives and faith groups to for-profit corporations, and funded by government on a parental voucher basis. Since the mid-90s the number of free schools has risen to 1,091. The biggest growth sector is private companies running chains of schools for profit, which now represent about 75% of free schools.

The case for the success of Academies in the UK, Charter schools in the US and ‘free schools’ in Sweden has been summarised recently by the New Schools Network (2010), which was set up some months before the election to promote the Conservatives’ plans. I want to look at those claims in the light of research evidence.

Does marketisation lead to innovation?

The OECD report I referred to above concludes that ‘exhaustive studies in the UK quasi-market find little evidence of academic innovations, despite this being an explicit policy objective for quasi-markets…’ (Lubienski 2009, p. 27). Regarding teaching and learning in Academies, the final evaluation of the Academies programme commissioned by the Labour government and carried out by PricewaterhouseCoopers (2008) found a ‘mixed picture’. It cites Ofsted inspection reports which indicate that

the quality of teaching continues to be variable across Academies and that there is an ongoing challenge at all levels, including sixth form, to increase the number of lessons rated good and outstanding. Inexperienced middle management and a relatively high percentage of teachers without qualified teacher status may be factors. (p. 17)

The report notes that the strategies for improvement are the same as those used by local authority schools and that ‘Over the course of the evaluation, there has been some pulling back on some of the earlier curricular innovations and a stronger focus on getting the basics right.’ (p. 17)

Reviewing research into US charter schools, Lubienski (2009) notes that their purpose is innovation but there is little evidence of it.

…it appears that charter schools are markedly more successful in disseminating than generating innovations in classroom practice (Lubienski, 2009, p. 33).

They introduce practices to new areas, often ones developed in publicly-run schools. This is significant in the US where there is no federal system imposing a level of homogeneity comparable to England, and therefore much greater local variation at state and school district levels. In England there is much less scope for innovation by private providers simply through transferring existing practices to new areas.

But Lubienski finds that the market does tend to generate two sorts of what might be called innovations, or to be more accurate regressive innovations. One is traditional methods, the other is standardisation.

Back to the future?

The Conservatives claim that increased parental choice will result in a return to traditional methods in schools. A Conservative spokesperson stated that ‘We have always argued that we think that a genuine choice system would lead to more tried and tested teaching methods because that is more popular with parents.’ (TES 25 September 2009). David Cameron has argued that ‘discipline, setting by ability and regular sport’ prevalent in the private sector would flourish in state schools once they were freed from government controls, forcing headteachers to respond to parental demands. (Guardian 9 October 2009). However, contradictorily, the Conservatives do not rely solely on market pressure: they intend also to intervene directly. ‘We will ensure that the primary curriculum is organised around subjects like Maths, Science and History. We will encourage setting’ (Conservative Party 2010, p. 6). Michael Gove has stated:

I’m an unashamed traditionalist when it comes to the curriculum. Most parents would rather their children had a traditional education, with children sitting in rows, learning the kings and queens of England, the great works of literature, proper mental arithmetic, algebra by the age of 11, modern foreign languages. That’s the best training of the mind and that’s how children will be able to compete. (Times 6 March 2010)

He believed that history lessons should celebrate rather than denigrate Britain’s role through the ages, including the Empire. ‘Guilt about Britain’s past is misplaced’.
Is the government correct in assuming that parental choice favours traditional approaches? According to Lubienski:

Researchers in a number of countries have reported trends toward more
traditionalist approaches to education, sometimes cast as a reaction to the trendiness and faddishness in a sector that is too focused on education […]. In these cases, researchers examining quasi-markets in the UK and the US have indicated that the autonomy and incentives of the quasi-market may encourage schools and parents to embrace proven methods…’
(Lubienski 2009, p. 25)

For example, a study of the curricular and pedagogical approach of 80 charter schools in several states found that 54% reported a ‘basics’ emphasis, a vocational focus, a traditional subject orientation, or a ‘general’ approach; another 36% were ‘alternative’, but featured familiar educational models. Another survey found that over 40% of the 261 charter schools surveyed reported a “back to-basics” or core-knowledge approach. (Lubienski 2009, p. 34)

I return to this issue later to consider the extent to which this might be the case in England.


Private for-profit companies running chains of state-funded schools tend to impose a standardised model in order to maximise profits through economies of scale, and often to ensure curriculum delivery by less qualified staff. Charter schools and Swedish free schools both employ a higher proportion of non-qualified staff as teachers (Lubienski 2009, pp. 32-3).

Thus, while critics claim that the hated “one-size-fits-all” approach to education is inherent in public control, such standardisation is also possible through the private cost-savings in the “cookie-cutter” approach. In the US, these standardising tendencies in large-scale operations are becoming more evident with the growing presence of corporations which try to increase their share of the market — all of which have a set approach to educating children. (Lubienski 2009, p. 39)

There is evidence from Sweden too of standardisation. Peje Emilsson is the founder and Chairman of the Board of the largest chain of private schools, Kunskapsskolan (The Knowledge School). In an interview (Emilsson 2005) he described his model of standardised teaching. He claims to offer personalised learning, but in reality this means pupils following at different paces a 35 step ladder common to all his schools. There is a standardised curriculum. Everything is provided for the schools through information technology – goals, instructions, textbooks. This leads to economies of scale and a ‘delivery’ model for teachers. All his schools also have the same standardised building design, which has nearly half as much space per pupil as state schools.

There is no research into the existence of a standardised model operated by Academy sponsors running chains of schools, but the basis is there in their management structure.

In these Academies, the governance arrangements were primarily collective,
with strategic decisions being taken on behalf of the group of Academies by
a central governing board. In addition, each individual Academy had a local
governing body, which tended to be responsible for day-to-day decisions
. (PricewaterhouseCoopers 2006, pp. 25-6)

Social selection

The OECD report says ‘the area where competitive incentives generated by these reforms appear to have sparked the most innovation is in terms of marketing.’ (Lubienski 2009, p. 23). By marketing is meant schools positioning themselves in the market, for which a, if not the, key strategy is selecting their intake, which means social selection resulting from a combination of selection by school and self-selection by parents and pupils. Lubienski says that ‘when schools have greater autonomy in quasi-markets competitive incentives cause schools to develop marketing innovations that may effectively exclude segments of the population.’ (p. 24). He gives the example of US charter schools ‘locating in more affluent neighborhoods or using admissions policies to dissuade or exclude more difficult-to-educate students’ (p, 24). He identifies the mechanisms: ‘many independent schools now require parent or student contracts, volunteer hours, adherence to mission statements, or other means that encourage self-segregation by parents that obscure selection of students by schools.’ (p. 41)

Socially-patterned self-selection was commented on in an OECD report in 2007 which stated that ‘it is not clear that pupils and parents in the lowest socio-economic classes are able to take advantage of school choice … Children from lower socio-economic backgrounds are much less likely to make the move to a better school than children from wealthier backgrounds.’ (Barton 2010). This confirms Ball’s conclusion from a survey of international research that ‘school choice policies are taken advantage of and primarily work in the interests of middle-class families’ (Ball 2003, p. 37). The evidence from Sweden is that one consequence of the advent of ‘free schools’ is greater social segregation between schools. ‘Several previous studies, and statistics, show that choice in the school system has led to a tendency to segregate in terms of pupils’ sociocultural background, performance and ethnic background. (Skolverket 2006, p.51).

Will this apply to free schools in England? The first proposed free school, the West London Free School, has been initiated by Toby Young, associate editor of the Conservative-supporting journal The Spectator (TES 29 January 2010). He describes it as a ‘comprehensive grammar school’, specialising in music, humanities, and classical civilisation, with every student learning Latin up to age 16. Although the school would be formally non-selective, in reality it would be likely to attract mainly children from professional middle-class families, for whom the school offers the kind of cultural capital which is the passport to Oxbridge and high-ranking professional careers.

Academies in England have become increasingly socially selective compared to their predecessor schools, as measured by the reduction in the number of pupils eligible for FSM (Gorard 2009). The new government’s invitation to ‘outstanding’ schools to immediately become Academies is also socially selective, since these schools take 40% fewer poor pupils than the national average (Observer 6 June 2010). Furthermore, schools in well-off areas of the country, especially the Home Counties, are much more likely to have expressed an interest in becoming an Academy than schools in the poorest areas (TES 2 July 2010). Whether they ultimately create a socially segregated two-tier system depends on whether they are simply the first tranche of Academies and all schools can subsequently follow suit, or whether a tier of schools regarded as lower-performing, likely to be disproportionately serving socially deprived areas, are prevented from becoming Academies.

The government proposes to introduce a ‘pupil premium’ with the aim of narrowing the educational achievement gap between rich and poor students by attaching greater school funding to those from disadvantaged backgrounds as an incentive for higher-performing schools, often in middle-class areas, to admit more students from poorer families. According to an analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (Chowdry et al 2010), schools are unlikely to actively recruit more disadvantaged pupils as a result of the pupil premium: the premium would need to be very high to sufficiently reduce the disincentive for many schools to attract such pupils, putting at risk their academic attainment and public image. Similarly, would the premium provide sufficient incentive for profit-driven providers to open ‘free schools’ aimed at poorer working class families rather than a middle class clientele? The Conservatives have not yet given a figure, and in fact local authority funding formulas already positively discriminate in favour of socially deprived schools so it would need to be significantly higher. Schools’ ability to select pupils is also limited to some extent by the School Admissions Code. Chowdry et al (2010, p.2) conclude that ‘The pupil premium may lead to a small reduction in covert selection by schools but is unlikely to significantly reduce social segregation.’

The employment of teachers in privatised schools

Academies and ‘free schools’ employ their own staff and are free to ignore national and local agreements on the pay and conditions of teachers and other school workers. The consequence, if they spread widely, would be – and this is the intention – a reduction in the power of the national unions and the probable worsening of the pay and conditions of teachers and other school workers. We can see this with Charter schools and Swedish free schools, both of which require much longer working hours (Lubienski 2009, pp. 32-3).

In Sweden Peje Emilsson is the founder and Chairman of the Board of the largest chain of
private schools, Kunskapsskolan (The Knowledge School). In an interview Emilson said

We are telling the headmasters in our school that the overriding goal is to make sure that the student learns as much as possible, but they should not spend more than 95 cents out of every dollar. (Emilsson 2005)

In practice this means much longer hours for teachers. Teachers work with pupils 30 hours a week (8am-5pm 5 days a week). In municipal schools it is 20 hours.

Fredriksson (2009) has argued that in Sweden ‘for-profit school ownership led to the emergence of the ‘market-oriented teacher’.’ (p. 299).

Firstly, market orientation involves teachers recognising and paying attention to the school management leadership. Under the slogan ‘let the manager manage’, the market model emphasises the importance of a strong local school leadership. Consequently, the local management is to lead the teachers of the individual school in the same way as managers in the private sector control the employees of private firms… (pp. 300-1)

The market-oriented teacher primarily perceives students and parents as customers rather than citizens or clients. (p. 301)

One type of charter school which finds particular favour with Conservative politicians (e.g. Gove 2010) is the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP), founded by two teachers in 1994, which now runs the largest chain of charter schools: 82 middle schools in 19 cities in the US, all non-profit. In England the Sutton Trust is currently planning an academy on the KIPP model (The Times 21 December 2009). A feature of KIPP schools, according to Knights (TES 26 February 2010) is teacher burn-out, resulting from a working week of 65 hours and the expectation that teachers are in contact with students 24/7.

Does marketisation raise standards ?

The conclusion of the OECD review of research by Lubienski is as follows:

…it is far from clear that quasi-market forces such as increased autonomy, competition and choice have led to improved outcomes, which would indicate that educational innovations are occurring. Evidence of improved academic outcomes is mixed, and improvements in academic performance may result from factors other than quasi-market incentives — for example, professional efforts, technocratic knowledge, policy alignments, or funding. If quasi-markets offered some type of elixir for educational
performance, we might, over time, expect to see nations with more market-like systems outperforming countries where the state plays a more direct role in educational provision. But it is hardly clear that this is the case.
(Lubienski 2009, pp. 27-8)

Based on evidence reviewed in this analysis, it appears that there is no direct causal relationship between leveraging quasi-market mechanisms of choice and competition in education and inducing educational innovation in the classroom. In fact, the very causal direction is in question in view of the fact that government intervention, rather than market forces, has often led to pedagogical and curricular innovation. (Lubienski 2009, p. 45)

What is the evidence for Academies, charters and free schools?

There is now sufficient evidence about Academies to show that on average they are no more successful than other schools with comparable intakes. The most recent research study of their performance in GCSE examinations taken at age 16 notes that attainment has risen but that ‘Overall, these changes in GCSE performance in academies relative to matched schools are statistically indistinguishable from one another.’ (Machin and Wilson 2009, p.8). 74 Academies have now taken at least 2 sets of GCSEs, allowing their progress to be monitored. Of these, 24 Academies (32%) saw their results fall between 2008 and 2009, at a time when most schools’ results improved. Some Academies have registered above-average levels of improvement, but the principal factors are two-fold. First, they have admitted a higher proportion of children from better-off families, who are statistically more likely to succeed academically. The percentage of FSM pupils in Academies has fallen from 45% in 2003 to 29% in 2008. Second, they have relied on non-GCSE examinations, which count as equivalent to GCSEs – in some cases as equivalent to four GCSE passes – and have a higher pass rate (TES 25 June, 2 July 2010). The conclusion of PricewaterhouseCoopers’ Academies evaluation 5th annual report 2008 is that:

The evaluation suggests that there is insufficient evidence to make a definitive judgement about the Academies as a model for school improvement. (PricewaterhouseCoopers 2008, p. 220)

The picture for charter schools is similar. According to Bendor et al (2007, p.14), ‘numerous studies have shown that the average charter school performs no better, and in some cases performs slightly worse, than the average public school.’ The most recent large-scale study was published in 2009 by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University: Multiple Choice: Charter school performance in 16 states. It concluded that

17 percent provide superior education opportunities for their students. Nearly half of the charter schools nationwide have results that are no different from the local public school options and over a third, 37 percent, deliver learning results that are significantly worse than their student would have realized had they remained in traditional public schools. (CREDO 2009, p.1)

A study of Philadelphia in 2008 found that ‘students’ average gains attending charter schools are statistically indistinguishable from the gains they experience while at traditional public schools. (Zimmer et al 2008, p. iii).

The Knowledge is Power Program undoubtedly results in students, predominantly from poorer backgrounds, achieving significantly higher than their peers in other schools (Educational Policy Institute 2005). 80% of the students are from low-income families but 85% go on to university (TES 19 February 2010). But the principal explanation may be that KIPP’s admission process selects for likely high achievers. Potential parents are rigorously interviewed. Furthermore, some KIPP schools show a high drop-out rate, especially for those students entering the schools with the lowest test scores (Woodworth et al 2008). Richardson (2009) makes the point that advocates claim that KIPP’s success is due to KIPP schools’ freedom from state control, which enables principals to control the budget and the curriculum, select and appoint staff and operate an extended timetable: ten-hour school days with sessions on Saturdays and in the summer holiday, which is 60% more time than other US middle schools. This is a radical departure for US schools, constrained by the school district, but not a relevant factor in the UK where schools already have this autonomy.

There have been a number of studies of attainment in Swedish free schools. The most study recent is by Bohlmark and Lindahl (2008), who found evidence of only small positive effects.

We find that an increase in the private school share moderately improves short-term educational outcomes such as 9th grade GPA and the fraction of students who choose an academic high school track. However, we do not find any impact on medium or long-term educational outcomes such as high school GPA, university attainment or years of schooling. We conclude that the first-order short-term effect is too small to yield lasting positive effects. (Bohlmark and Lindahl 2008, p.1)

A study of reading found that students in free schools had on average better reading results, but that the explanation was that they had ‘a more advantageous socio-economic background than have students in public schools. Social selection hence characterises independent schools’ (Myrberg and Rosen 2006, p.185). A summary of Bohlmark and Lindahl’s research concludes that ‘The biggest beneficiaries are children from highly educated families; the impact on low educated families and immigrants is close to zero.’ (Allen 2010, p. 5.) This analysis is confirmed by Per Thulberg, director general of the Swedish National Agency for Education: ‘The students in the new schools, they have in general better standards, but it has to do with their parents, their backgrounds. They come from well-educated families.’ (Guardian Education 9 February 2010). Independent schools have ‘a larger proportion of pupils with parents who have continued in education after upper secondary school.’ (Skolverket 2006, p.17).

Will competition between schools raise standards in the whole system?

One argument used by supporters of allowing new schools in order to provide more market competition between schools is that it raises the performance of other schools. In a survey carried out by Skolverket, the Swedish National Agency for Education, ‘The majority of municipalities with a high proportion of pupils in independent schools consider that relations between independent and municipal schools are largely characterised by competition. (Skolverket 2006, p. 32). However, 79% disagreed with the statement ‘competition with independent compulsory schools in your municipality has contributed to school improvement in compulsory schools in your municipality’ (p. 26), although ‘In municipalities with a high proportion of pupils in independent compulsory schools, heads of education consider that competition between schools has contributed to improved education.’ (p. 48). According to Per Thulberg ‘This competition between schools that was one of the reasons for introducing the new schools has not led to better results.’ (Guardian Education 9 February 2010). In the US Zimmer et al (2008, p. iii) found ‘no evidence that the district schools located in neighborhoods with the greatest charter competition are performing any better or any worse as a result of the competition.’

The evidence from these forerunners of the ConDems’ policy does not support the claim that the combination of parental choice and new providers will raise standards of attainment, including, and particularly, in socially deprived areas (Conservative Party 2010).

Furthermore, the ConDems’ reforms take place in a new and very different context: a massive government austerity programme. The biggest determinant of educational inequality is economic inequality. ConDem economic and fiscal policies will greatly increase social inequality. For example, unemployment is predicted to rise to 3 million, including the loss of 750,000 public sector jobs. And the widely predicted deep cuts in education itself will further increase social inequality in the school system.

Will the Conservative programme be implemented ?

Leaving aside for the moment the question of what campaigns of opposition and resistance the ConDems’ policies might provoke, I first want to consider what other obstacles there may be to their implementation stemming from the difficulties in constructing a sufficiently powerful quasi-market to achieve their goals. It requires a combination of the following elements of supply and demand:

  • Consumers (parents and their children) choosing schools for reasons which correspond to the government’s agenda
  • Parental choice generating sufficient pressure on providers (schools) to force them to provide a service which corresponds to the government’s agenda

First, the question of demand. There are two problems. Demand only becomes effective when there is sufficient local choice of providers to exert competitive pressure on them. In the case of over-subscribed schools it is in reality the school that chooses the child (Lubienski 2009, p. 41). And parents choose schools for a variety of reasons, not solely based on standards of attainment or other elements of the government’s agenda.

Second, problems of supply.

1. Will schools want to become Academies?

Why would headteachers and governing bodies want their schools to become Academies now that the main attraction of Academies under Labour, a new building, no longer applies? Academies offer some greater freedom from local authorities, but schools already have substantial freedom (especially Foundation schools), and in any case all schools will benefit from the ConDems’ promise of greater autonomy and freedom from bureaucracy. Some heads and governing bodies may be attracted by the opportunity for the school to be free of national and local employment agreements, and to be its own admissions authority. But many schools would prefer to remain part of a local authority because of the support service benefits they provide.

There is however one major incentive to become an Academy which might prove irresistible to schools which would otherwise chose to remain with local authorities. They will be entitled, on top of the usual funding which new Academies will continue to get (from government rather than the local authority), to an extra 10% or so funding as their share of the education budget which local authorities retain for central services. For a large comprehensive school this could amount to a million pounds a year. Of course, the school would then have to pay for essential services no longer supplied by the local authority, such as legal and financial services, human resource services, payroll, asset management and emergency protection. This will open up a lucrative market for the private sector (and perhaps some entrepreneurial local authorities). The question is, will enough surplus be left to the school after paying for those services to provide a sufficient incentive to become an Academy, bearing in mind that if serious cuts in school budgets are imposed by government next year then that surplus could be decisive in leading schools to
reluctantly opt-out, preferring the lesser evil of becoming academies than losing staff, and especially making staff redundant?

2. Will there be enough free schools to drive market forces ?

The New Schools Network claims that 191 groups have expressed an interest in starting schools, 85 of them since the general election (Guardian 25 May 2010). Religious bodies and individuals, including those holding fundamentalist views, are likely to want to seize the opportunity, as they have by sponsoring Labour’s Academies. The most contentious category of providers is for-profit companies (see below). But for parental choice to drive market forces most effectively there has to be sufficient spare capacity in the system for choice to matter to suppliers, which would require a significant presence of free schools in each local circuit of schooling.

The government’s proposals have not been publicly costed, but the provision of a large number of surplus places would be very expensive. (The Conservatives initially spoke of 220,000 extra places, which amounts to an increase of about 20%). There would be the additional running costs of both the new schools and existing schools (Holmlund and McNally 2009, p. 21). The government has stated that it will be paid for by taking money (perhaps £4.5 billion) from the Building Schools for the Future budget, a programme to rebuild or renovate all state secondary schools, which would mean that existing schools would be left in an increasingly unsatisfactory condition while ‘free schools’ flourish at their expense. But in the context of an ongoing recession and a huge budget deficit, that programme is certain to be wholly or completely scrapped. A hard-pressed Treasury is likely to be reluctant to fund large numbers of unnecessary extra school places.

3. Will private providers run state schools for profit ?

One potential provider of free schools is private companies, and if it were sufficiently profitable they could enter the market in substantial numbers. Anders Hultin, the director of Kunskapsskolan, recently advised Conservative politicians that ‘Only the profit motive will drive the level of expansion and innovation that education services require’ (Guardian 4 March 2010). Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, said recently that the government has no “ideological objection” to firms making profits from new academies and free schools (Daily Telegraph 1 June 2010).

There are two ways to make a profit from running state schools. One is to manage them under contract without owning them. Governing bodies could contract out the operation of the school, including teaching, to a private company for a management fee, on the model of education management organisations in the US.

This potential for corporate involvement is most apparent in the growth of for-profit management companies in the US. Corporate EMOs now manage a substantial proportion of the charter schools in states that market advocates favour for their “stronger” legislation. In Michigan, EMOs run about three-fourths of all charter schools, which tend to be larger than the remaining small-scale, independent “mom-and-pop”
providers that were to generate innovation and diversity of options […]. Furthermore, groups like Edison hope to expand worldwide, taking advantage of opportunities such as the UK Labour government’s plan to bring private managers in to run failing schools […].
(Lubienski 2009, p. 39)

It is important to recognise that this is already permitted in England, and in fact Edison Learning, an American schools-for-profit company, has been running Turin Grove school in London on that basis since 2007. Parents too could hire a private firm to run a free school on their behalf. Young is currently in negotiation with Edison, and a similar British company, to run the West London Free School. Anders Hultin, architect of Kunskapsskolan, is now CEO of GEMS-UK (Global Education Management Systems), which runs some 75 private international schools. He says ‘We are exploring possibilities right now, supporting groups of parents. That’s a natural starting point’. Kunskapsskolan itself has recently opened an office in London and become the sponsor of two Academies, positioning itself to move into the for-profit market. VT Group, which started as a defence contractor, building and operating ships for the Royal Navy, and now runs the education departments of two local authorities, regards running 1000 schools on management contracts is ‘not unrealistic.’ (Education Guardian 25 May 2010). Further Education colleges have also expressed an interest in running schools. A recent report commissioned by the 157 Group of leading FE colleges has argued that colleges should be allowed to convert to companies running a range of business operations including running schools and Academies (TES FE Focus 5 February 2010).

The other way to make a profit is to for companies to actually own as well as run Academies or ‘free schools’. A change in legislation would be required. It remains to be seen whether the government will allow it.

There is a possible legal obstacle to both forms of privatisation. Where there is a profit motive the extended tendering processes of the EU’s public procurement regime may apply, opening up the application process both to competitors and to public scrutiny. (Guardian 1 June 2010).

4. Will the funding for ‘free schools’ make them sufficiently attractive for providers seeking to own or manage them for profit?
Companies can make substantial profits from supplying services to schools. The question is, would operating state schools be sufficiently profitable to attract them? Kunskapsskolan makes a profit, according to a report by Hazel Danson, an elected officer of the National Union of Teachers in England, after a visit to Sweden in 2009, by employing fewer qualified teachers, cutting the cost of facilities, and standardising provision (Danson 2009). Will that model be attractive to parents in England, accustomed to schools with a relatively high level of funding and facilities?

What effect would the spread of Academies and ‘free schools’ have on local school systems?

1. Will it result in schools declining and closing?

The creation of new schools, all chasing the same pupils, would send some, maybe many, existing schools into a spiral of decline as their pupil numbers diminished, resulting in some becoming unviable.

2. Will market competition prevent schools collaborating to share knowledge and practice for improvement?

The dominant discourse of school improvement in the last few years, with the declining credibility of the ‘standards agenda’, has been collaboration between schools to transfer and jointly develop knowledge and practice, ranging from networks of schools to federations. Will market competition undermine collaboration (apart from within chains of schools? The evidence from charter schools is that

while autonomy and competition were meant to lead to innovations, the demise of central bureaucracies and the rise of adversarial relationships down-grades the capacity for schools to share innovations with each other […]. Nor is there much incentive to share an innovation with a competitor. (Lubienski 2009, p. 40)

Regarding Academies, a National Audit Office report (2007, p. 9) found that ‘there has been little collaboration between most academies and neighbouring secondary schools, which may see each other as ‘competition’.’ Gove has said that each new academy will ‘be asked and expected to take under their wing an underperforming school’ (Daily Telegraph 1 June 2010 ).
But apart from this will the spread of Academies and free schools lead to less collaboration? Perhaps so with commercial providers, but schools which are ‘reluctant opters-out’ of local authorities will be anxious to retain their networks with the schools both in and outside the local authority.

3. What effect will marketisation have on local democracy in the school system?

The market agenda represents a major threat to the existing, albeit attenuated, elements of local democracy. When the ConDems speak of ‘accountability’ they refer to accountability to Ofsted and government, not to local stakeholders through school governing bodies and elected local government. Local empowerment, a largely rhetorical theme of Labour now taken up by the new government, takes the form of choice not voice: the opportunity to influence provision through consumer choice, not participation in policy-making. The generalisation of Academies and ‘free schools’ would be outside the local authority system of schools, under which local elected town and county councils have some powers to arrange and manage coherent provision in their areas, in particular pupil places. If Academies and free schools spread, local provision would be unplanned, fragmented and chaotic. Local authorities would be reduced to a residual role, responsible only for the rump of schools which chose not to become Academies or failed to gain government approval, often schools undermined by loss of pupils and middle class flight and needing support from local authorities whose capacity to provide it was being reduced by declining funding.

Chains of Academies and free schools are unelected and locally unaccountable, and in some cases represent moves towards surrogate local authorities. Their owners and managers’ interests overlap with those of an emerging technocratic elite of headteachers, system leaders and some prominent academic leadership experts. They have in common a desire to insulate
schools from forms of elected and representative local democracy – school governing bodies and local authorities. For example, David Hopkins claims that ‘Moral purpose in school reform […] is also about empowering communities’ (2007, p. 179), but he is insistent that schools should be free from accountability to local elected government:

the move towards networking should be developed and groups of secondary schools must, in particular, should be encouraged to form collaborative arrangements outside local control. (Hopkins 2007, p172)

Brian Caldwell (2006) goes further in anticipating in advance the Con-Dem agenda by questioning whether there is a need at all for local authorities in education, envisaging just autonomous schools operating within a government framework of standards, resources and accountability.

How will schools use increased autonomy?

Increased autonomy is the promise for all schools, not just in the form of governance as academies and free schools but over the curriculum.

I want to remove everything unnecessary from a curriculum that has been bent out of shape by the weight of material dumped there for political purposes. I want to prune the curriculum of over-prescriptive notions of how to teach and how to timetable. Instead I want to arrive at a simple core, informed by the best international practice, which can act as a benchmark against which schools can measure themselves and parents ask meaningful and informed questions about progress. (Gove 2010)

Schools will value greater freedom to decide on curriculum and pedagogy after the years of Labour’s top-down prescription. But autonomy brings with it the risk for government that schools will use it not to return to Gove’s ‘traditional methods’ but to reintroduce progressive practices which the Thatcher government sought to drive out of the system, through the National Curriculum and Ofsted and an ideological offensive led by the Black Papers and Chris Woodhead. Will the combined pressure of Ofsted, performance tables and parental choice ensure that heads and teachers don’t use their increased autonomy to depart from the government agenda? Has the culture of ‘progressive education’ which developed during the 60s, 70s and 80s now been safely eradicated from the schools as a result of the neo-liberal reforms since the 1988 Act and the work of time: the departure of a generation of ‘progressive’ teachers and the training of a new generation with no memory of it?

Under Labour many headteachers attempted to mediate and mitigate the negative elements of government policies, but without mounting a serious challenge to the boundaries they set. As Nigel Wright said, ‘heads know that their schools have to succeed in a target-based culture and in the end this will drive what is allowed and what is proscribed’ (2003, p. 142. See also Hatcher 2005b). The one exception, right at the end of the Labour government, but surprisingly radical, was the boycott of SATs in May 2010 by many members of the National Association of Head Teachers, in alliance with the National Union of Teachers.
The situation now is different. The limitations of the standards agenda and top-down micro-management of teaching have been revealed. A new government is promising professional autonomy over curriculum and pedagogy within the framework of a forthcoming new national curriculum of minimum entitlements. Gove made clear in his speech to school leaders at the National College conference (Gove 2010) that the use of autonomy was the responsibility of headteachers. But there is a sense now in schools that there is a window of opportunity to exercise greater professional judgement, and many headteachers as well as teachers will want to use it not to return to ‘traditional’ methods but to develop further the creative and progressive teaching they were attempting to practise under Labour.
During the election the Conservatives talked about wanting a simplified primary curriculum, built around phonics and ‘maths, science and history’. Michael Gove has rejected the Rose review (Rose 2009) and scrapped Labour’s new primary curriculum, promising a new review of the curriculum which will take up to two years. But many teachers approve of the Rose review’s approach and the somewhat more radical one of the Cambridge Primary Review (Alexander 2009). Since it was published in October 2009 the Review team has been holding events across the country and is now setting up a support network for teachers who want to take advantage of the promised autonomy to develop a new progressive primary school curriculum from the bottom up before the government completes its own primary curriculum review. The Conservatives argue that parents prefer ‘traditional methods’, but in my view many parents fully approve of current progressive primary practice and would support the Cambridge Review approach. (Another recent initiative is the Whole Education network, supported by 14 organisations including the RSA, which aims to promote progressive education as the alternative to what they see as the danger of a back to basics approach.)
The question then is what will government do if schools depart from the ‘traditional methods’ agenda? If they don’t raise standards then Ofsted can recommend sanctions. But if they do it is difficult to see what government can do apart from either tolerate them or abandon its promise of autonomy and intervene in the curriculum to try to enforce its own agenda.

There is an important opportunity here for the left not only to oppose cuts and marketisation but to also engage in and encourage a national debate about the curriculum and pedagogy, with social justice, emancipatory learning and raising standards for all at its heart.

What will the government do if marketisation fails to improve standards?

I began by saying that the government’s marketisation project for the school system is a high-risk strategy. If it fails to improve standards sufficiently it risks losing both electoral support and the confidence of employers, who look to this government to ensure that the school system produces the future workforce more efficiently than its predecessor, in accordance with employers’ requirements. What will the government do if the market doesn’t raise standards?

And here, as with the previous issue of schools going off-message, there is a fundamental strategic problem for the government. Does it respond by ratcheting up competition in the schools market even more in the hope that it drives up standards? Or does it draw the conclusion which New Labour drew from the Thatcher-Major era, that market mechanisms in the school system are too weak and need to be supplemented by – in fact, take second place to – much more interventionist state regulation?

This dilemma risks reviving earlier internal tensions within the Conservative party between different ideological strands of Conservative thinking which emerged over three decades ago during the education reforms of the Thatcher government. The two relevant strands can be characterised as the ‘free marketeers’ and the ‘industrial modernisers’ (Jones 1989, 2003). Clearly in David Cameron’s programme today the ‘free marketeers’ are in the ascendancy. But there is a strand in Conservative thinking which aims to offer a direct and specific solution to the complaints of employers and the needs of the economy for technically qualified workers. It is represented in the Coalition programme by the proposal for Technical Academies.

We will improve the quality of vocational education, including increasing flexibility for 14–19 year olds and creating new Technical Academies as part of our plans to diversify schools provision. (Cabinet Office 2010)

This is a re-badging of a policy adopted recently by the Labour government and initiated by
Kenneth Baker, a previous and influential Conservative secretary of state for education, under the name of University Technical College academies, sponsored by universities, modelled in part on German technical schools and in part on the technical schools initiated in the 1944 Act. They are intended to engage young people from age 14 who are attracted to a more vocationally-oriented education. 12 UTCs are already planned, with the first one opening soon in Birmingham, sponsored by Aston University. The question is whether the spread of Technical Academies can be left to the market (one obvious candidate would be FE colleges, which are anticipating being able to take students fulltime from age 14) or whether it will require active government intervention to engender them, in contradiction to the market ethos.

Opposition and resistance

In addition to the problems I have mentioned which could impede the government’s marketisation project there is the question of opposition and resistance. One issue is the expected programme of cuts in every school’s budget. How effective is union resistance to attacks to teachers’ pay and conditions remains to be seen. The stakes are highest in Academy and free schools, where not only pay and conditions but the existence of unions will be threatened by the determined attempts of some managers to disregard national and local agreements. There is likely to be widespread opposition to the spread of Academies and the creation of free schools on the basis that they represent forms of privatisation and that schools should be accountable to local authorities (and, in the case of free schools, that they are depriving existing schools of money taken from the Building Schools for the Future budget). Labour’s Academies provoked campaigns of opposition and the new government’s ones are likely to draw in wider support from those who found Labour’s academies more tolerable, either because they were regarded as the price to pay for BSF funding or because they were claimed to address the needs of socially disadvantaged areas, unlike the first tranche of the new academies which comprise ‘outstanding’, and therefore disproportionately middle-class, schools. Or simply because they are Conservative and not Labour academies. However, only a handful of local campaigns succeeded in stopping Labour’s Academies. There are also difficult questions posed if there are local moves for free schools by working class and oppressed groups with legitimate demands for schools which more effectively meet their needs.

Market choice and participatory democracy

The Conservative-Liberal Democrat government offers a vision of school education which answers the two fundamental issues of content and control. Content is a return to traditional methods; control is in the hands of parents shaping through their market choices how headteachers exercise professional autonomy and what private providers offer. The challenge for its opponents is to offer a credible alternative vision. In terms of content, it means filling out the slogan of ‘a good local school for every child’ with a narrative capable of winning popular support, a narrative which grounds curriculum and pedagogy in a coherent progressive statement of aims and principles, as for example the Cambridge Primary Review and the Nuffield 14-19 Review have done.

In terms of control, in other words how power is distributed within the system, there is a noticeable absence of an alternative to the government’s claim that the market – a choice of providers, and the opportunity, including for parents and teachers, to enter the market as a provider – offers more genuine democracy in the school system at the local level than that afforded by membership of school governing bodies and the procedures of elected local government. It has to be admitted that this argument has some purchase, especially with regard to local councils, which, in spite of Labour’s rhetoric about local empowerment and democratic renewal, exclude any meaningful role for participatory democracy (Barnes, Newman and Sullivan 2007, Hatcher 2010). The left has always been ambivalent about popular participation in education decision-making at the local level, often seeing it as a potential threat both to state-assured equality and to professional autonomy (however restricted both of those have been). But there is only one alternative to market choice as the claimed guarantee of democracy in the school system and that is radical participatory deliberative democracy at the local level, and the left should not feel inhibited about vigorously championing it and opening up a national debate about popular accountability in the school system.


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