If you are following what the new British coalition government is announcing, particularly with regard to education, you might want to have a look at this article in yesterday’s Guardian by Estelle Morris. Ms Morris (actually now Baroness Morris of Yardley) was herself Education Secretary for a while in Tony Blair’s government; in 2002 she resigned, having rather disarmingly said she did not feel up to the job – I have always had a soft spot for her since then, as such honesty and modesty is not a common political trait. She also has a university background, as she subsequently was appointed Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sunderland.
The main theme of her Guardian article is the ‘marketisation’ of education, and in particular the extent to which this is at the heart of the new government’s policies. The question of course has to be that if education is to be in a ‘market’, then what are the key ingredients of that market: i.e. what is being sold, and who are the purchasers and vendors, and what are the factors influencing supply and demand? If the ‘commodity’ is education, then you are only going to have a free market if all education is private and if quality is reflected in price, so that wealthier people can afford to buy the best education, and poorer people buy a lower quality version or maybe end up not being able to afford it at all. But in reality nobody wants a market quite like that, and anyone advocating it wouldn’t fare too well politically. So instead the ‘market’ concept has revolved around something much more limited, which is the competition between schools for students, or really for parents. At the heart of this is the belief that you need to inject ambition into educational establishments, and that this will only materialise if they have some discretion as to which students they will select.
Markets are an important and generally effective device for distributing goods and resources and services, but education is not particularly suited to this kind of approach. Education determines all sorts of social, economic and cultural issues in society, and a modern country needs to ensure that quality in education does not particularly follow privilege and wealth. A political imperative must be to raise educational standards at the lowest social level; but a market will depend significantly on a strong differentiation in quality between the best and the worst.
It seems to me to be right that schools should be free to be creative and entrepreneurial, and they should not be bureaucratised and controlled. Equally there needs to be transparency as to quality and performance, so that league tables ought to be beneficial. But allowing schools and parents to build up a class-based educational system is not one of the things we should tolerate. It is, I think, too early to see what the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have in mind, but we should watch this space with some interest.