Is Competition a Dirty Word? No, but fighting for survival is

13th June 2011

Firstly, let’s be under no illusions- competition is nothing new. Ambitious heads have always competed with each other, wanting their school to be the best school in the borough. Whatever the government might like to think, Local Authority Schools are perfectly capable of getting competitive. This frequently serves as an incentive to continuous improvement and there’s nothing wrong with that. It comes as no surprise though that a government committed to the power of markets believes feeding this competitive instinct will get more schools to improve.

There is a new element here though and it is an error to subsume it under the general title of school competition. This government’s policies are raising the stakes by creating excess supply of school places. This means that heads will no longer be competing to be the best just because they want to be the best. Instead, they will be fighting to survive. I personally don’t doubt that this will encourage some stagnating schools to improve, I just don’t think it’s the only way to improve schools and given that it has such significant and undeniable drawbacks I can’t see why it’s the strategy of choice.

We know that schools can improve dramatically without being made to fight for survival in a crowded market. Impact assessments of London Challenge have pointed to dramatic improvements and recommended that the DfE should

“apply the lessons gained from London Challenge in driving school improvement across other regions, noting in particular the success of partnerships between schools and the use of current practitioners as effective agents of support” (OFSTED 2010)

If schools can improve in this way (and through schemes like the original Academies program), what is it that competition under excess supply adds? It does not provide extra capacity to improve, only an incentive. Yet if incentive to improve is what is lacking then there is something wrong with the staff and leadership team – not the structure of the system (plenty of teachers and leaders within the same system are passionate about improving). If small numbers of lazy, stagnant Heads are the sole reason for bringing this new type of competition into the market then it seems a pretty blunt weapon to be applying to the whole system and it hardly justifies threatening heads like Claire Bradford, who has already doubled the results in her challenging school.

Of course, it is unacceptable that some schools are coasting and that some teachers and leaders are satisfied with too little. That’s why an assertive system of school inspection, increased standards of School Leadership and skilled, proactive governors are essential. Some might argue that introducing a market and the associated school competition would achieve these in a more efficient way (assuming conditions for an efficient market exist amongst schools, which they probably don’t.) However, it is by no means the best policy choice given that competition under excess supply has such huge drawbacks.

What are these drawbacks? I don’t propose to go into too much detail here but they include fact that:

  1. School closure is hugely disruptive to pupils and the local community
  2. School choice tends to disproportionately benefit the more affluent and sharper elbowed
  3. When school rolls school income does too causing diseconomies to appear and pupils are left sinking schools whilst they gradually wind down and close (even if this only takes a couple of years that’s a significant chunk of several hundred children’s one chance in education
  4. Opening and closing schools is costly and wasteful
  5. Collaboration is hampered.

I will perhaps spend a moment on the latter: damage to collaboration. I have frequently had this debate with policy makers who insist that competition and collaboration can co-exist. This is another point on which the distinction between competition for pre-eminence vs. competition for survival is pertinent. Yes heads who are competitive about wanting to be the best can collaborate. That’s because their motivations for competing are two-fold: vocational in wanting to contribute to the best possible education and ego/career based.  Both of these are served by helping other schools. However, when there is excess supply, the only motive in town is survival. This is in no way served by helping another school.

So school competition has been around for years and that’s healthy. However, competition for survival is new. The sole benefit it brings is an added incentive to improve but it does nothing to help schools do so. Schools have shown they can improve without having to fight for survival but the fuel for the engine of competition under excess supply is school closure and this has huge drawbacks. So why exactly are we introducing a policy which will tackle outliers whilst damaging the majority when there are plenty of alternatives out there? I have yet to work that one out.

This is the first of two blogs on school competition:

Why Schools aren’t quite like supermarkets: is competition a dirty word?