Schools don’t lack the will. They lack the way: Incentivising excellence through market reform is a bad choice.

9th April 2013

Here’s why:

Proposal 1: “We should have more school choice because it will provide an incentive for school improvement and this will improve education”

I disagree because: Ask yourself what is the biggest limit on how good schools are… Is it?

a) Not wanting to be better

b) Not managing to be better

Incentives and choice are only good mechanisms if the answer is a. As far as I can tell the answer is mainly b: Schools don’t lack the will. They lack the way.

(The more I think about this question, the more I think this would be interesting to investigate – see note)

That’s not to say there aren’t some schools which lack will but these are generally:

  • Coasting schools
  • Schools below floor target/unsatisfactory or requiring improvement according to Ofsted.

There are two ways of dealing with these:

Market mechanisms: (which I have written about in the past and called ‘competition for survival‘). The theory goes that as pupils gradually drift away from a poor school, the school loses money and eventually dies. I think this is a bad idea because it takes a long time and causes upheaval for communities. It means that for many years, a few pupils are stuck in a gradually failing school.  It is also a huge waste of public money; setting up schools costs a lot, not to mention that having multiple schools co-existing requires extra sites. In many places like London, finding enough sites even for the schools we need is nigh on impossible, let alone for excess supply.

State driven mechanisms: As it stands, we already have mechanisms to deal with  lack of will when it occurs and these have already been toughened up. If a school is below floor target it will be taken over by another provider. If it is judged to require improvement it will be re-inspected. Some people think that this is Draconian but I’m unapologetic about being no molly-coddler; In fact I’d re-inspect schools requiring improvement sooner than two years on to check they are at least improving. As to the floor target, so long as it takes into account progress not just attainment (which it does) then I support it (although I think trends and whether the outcome was anomalous, as with #GCSEfiasco, should be taken into account).

Advocating a strong state driven mechanism for dealing with occasional failures of will does not require any particular position on who should provide schools. LAs and other providers could be equally adept. However this approach is the opposite of Gabriel and the CMRE’s market driven approach.


Proposal 2: “Parents should be in control and schools should serve them because freedom = ‘state bad, parents good’”

I disagree because: Parents can be a constraint on children and already have a huge influence on their child. Our problem isn’t making sure they have more influence but providing a counterbalance so that schools can liberate pupils from the constraints of their parents, exposing them to other opportunities and not accentuating inequalities. This is a complex subject and hard to summarise  but it is fundamental to LKMco’sraison d’etre. I wrote a whole blog about it here.


Proposal 3: “Teacher quality is what makes a difference so we should liberalise the market so that schools innovate around pay etc.”

I disagree because:

If our goal is to improve teacher quality, wholesale restructuring of the education system to provide choice seems a very roundabout way of getting there. It is hard not to think that it is an ideologically driven approach.

My controversial support for pay discretion is based on thinking it is fair, not on thinking that it will increase teacher performance through incentives. Teachers’ generally want to teach better but struggle to do so and Daniel Pink has made it quite clear that pay is not the best lever for teacher quality:

Given that schools can now set pay this proposal seems a bit outdated anyway.


Proposal 4: “So long as good information is available, parents will chose schools that most benefit their child”

Why I disagree: I don’t disagree that parents should have plenty of information available but I do not think that this will be enough to deliver equity.

Firstly, although I think most parents care deeply about their child’s education, I am worried about those most vulnerable of children whose parents don’t. I’d therefore want to hear proposals for protecting these young people.

Secondly, there is already a lot of information available but how many parents use it? Not all parents have the time, energy or expertise to access and sift information to make informed choices. How many parents realise for example that one of the best predictors of how well your child will do in a school (according to Burgess and Allen) is school composition?

Thirdly, do we even want parents to be making choices in this way (doesn’t it get circular anyway: who ends up in a school depends on a choice based on who is in the school) – not to mention Buckley and Schneider’s work on Washington DC oft cited by Laura which shows parents’ worrying tendency to focus on racial demographics when making choices.

I guess the free-marketeers would argue that it’s not for the state to decide how parents make their choices- That’d be fine if it were just parents who reaped the benefits/drawbacks. But it’s not: It’s children and society too.

Others might want to argue with a number of the research claims made including:

  • School choice benefits poor pupils most.
  • Failing schools rarely improve unless they get rid of 90% of their staff.
  • Sweden’s falling PISA results are not due to market reform of schools (they are a result of a drop in teacher quality as a result of universally imposed progressive education) and drops would have been more dramatic if it were not for market reform.

However, I don’t want to get involved in a game of evidence ping pong so will leave that to those who are better informed.

But I would like to raise a few additional questions:

  • How will this school choice model work in low population, rural communities?
  • If schools become increasingly different won’t this reduce pupil mobility? i.e. If you begin studying a particular curriculum/qualification system in one school won’t it be harder to swap to another school if other schools are doing something entirely different?
  • Improvements in (and around) early academies were given as examples of the success of competition – was competition really a key feature of the academies program?

 Note: I actually wonder about this question of how schools perceive themselves (i.e. good enough or not).  It would be genuinely fascinating to ask a large, representative sample of teachers and school leaders whether they think their schools are achieving ‘more/less or about as highly as can be expected’ in order to gauge their ‘will to improve’ (If anyone would be interested in funding that then do get in touch!)

Because we would be looking at how good a school could be rather than compared to current average it wouldn’t be the same as the well documented issue of illusory superiority (according to which most drivers think they are better than average). Nonetheless, I wonder whether schools are biased towards thinking they are better than average – if so it might limit their ‘will to improve’ – an argument, market reformers might use for competition (although I’d say it’s an argument for better information and feedback as more accurate self perception would benefit schools anyway.)

You can find a Storify of my live tweets from the event here