Why Schools Aren’t Quite Like Supermarkets – Is Competition a Dirty Word… Part 2

18th June 2011

“Competition is a lever for improvement. We accept it, alongside some serious regulation, as a better lever for quality, value, safety etc for vital things like the provision of our food. We tend to agree, don’t we, that centrally planning the provision of our most basic necessity –food– is not the way to go? Do you think it would make sense if Tesco collaborated more with other supermarkets? Would it make things more efficient, better? Or do you think education is a special case?“

The answer in short? Are schools like supermarkets? No. For lots of reasons but for 4 main ones:

1. Perfect information

The view that markets provide optimal outcomes relies on the assumption of perfect information. Whilst it is rarely “perfect” with a supermarket it’s still pretty simple. You go in, look at the prices, buy the food, taste it, and decide if you like it. With schools it’s a bit different.

The government is making well intentioned attempts to improve information by publishing much more data but that’s not necessarily the information parents and pupils want and need (and its rarely the only information they want). Ofsted and other parents’ recommendations help a bit too but there’s still a huge amount of information you would want in order to make an informed choice which you can’t get. Indeed, you’ll get even less once the Ofsted framework is reformed and you don’t even get an (admittedly flawed) assessment of the schools’ contribution to Every Child Matters outcomes. Clearly, not having perfect information doesn’t in itself mean you shouldn’t get to exercise choice- but it does mean it is essential that (not purely exam related) universal entitlements are provided. Simply throwing the doors open to the market won’t help. On top of that it means making parental choice the sole decider of a school’s fate is a flawed mechanism for improvement

2. Repeated choice

Most of us go to a supermarket once a week or so. Every week we decide again where we will do our weeks shopping depending on last weeks’ experience. This definitely isn’t a workable system for school choice. Yes you can change school but it’s a huge decision and not one you should be making too often. Whilst no one minds changing what supermarket they will shop at, parents want a school they know will meet their child’s needs for the whole of their schooling. That’s even more important than having the freedom to continuously revise one’s choice.

3. Social outcomes

If one supermarket only sells unhealthy food and another only sells healthy food, society could potentially be said to have a stake in steering people’s shopping decisions. Luckily this doesn’t tend to happen. In contrast, society does have a stake in what type of school children go to.

This won’t always be in line with pupil or parent’s desires.I refer back to the Swedish Free School example – there is saw pupils flocking to a school that grew quickly because it offered short hours and fun courses. This competition driven outcome was definitely not a “lever for improvement” and society can definitely be said to have a stake in steering schools away from it.

4. Costs of failure

I feel very sorry for the staff in supermarkets which prove unpopular and end up closing. However, I feel much more sorry for the pupils in schools that close.

Jacob would reply (as he does) that this is true “but how bad does it feel when average schools churn out year after year of kids only half of whom get 5 A*-Cs?” My answer is that it feels terrible. That’s why I’m so pleased that intensive programs of school improvement like London Challenge and the replacement of inadequate heads (referred to in my last blog) have shown that they can end these unacceptable cases. I suspect Teaching Schools and the government’s new commitment to a “self-improving system” will do so too- without the undesirable side effects that result from a fight for survival.

You can find Part 1 of “Is Competition a Dirty Word? No, but fighting for survival is” here. Read Jacob’s full argument  and join the debate at www.facebook.com/PolicyFirst