Myth Three: 'Choice, competition and markets are the route to educational success'

Janet Downs's picture
This is the second of five extracts from our book School Myths: And the Evidence That Blows Them Apart.

In recent years a powerful alliance of interest groups, governments, business and philanthropic capital have used their considerable political and financial influence to bring market-style solutions to the education systems of nations around the world. This has come to be known as the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) and its approach is based on potent narrative: public education is ‘broken’ (see Chapter 1 for the UK version). Only competition, choice, standardisation of outcome and test-based accountability can fix it. This is perhaps the most seductive myth on offer in the current world of education - here and around the world. Leading US anti-corporate reformer Diane Ravitch sums it up pithily when she describes how pro-market reformers set out to prove that ‘Traditional public [i.e. state] schools are bad; their supporters are apologists for the unions. [Meanwhile] those who advocate for charter schools, virtual schooling, and “school choice” are reformers; their supporters ... are championing the rights of minorities … they are the leaders of the civil rights movement of our day.’

Substitute ‘free schools and academies’ for ‘charter schools’ in Diane Ravitch’s declaration and that is a fair representation of the debate now raging in the UK. Since the mid 1980s successive governments have progressively fallen prey to idea that ‘choice and competition’ will fix our ‘broken’ schools. A small number of ‘independent state schools’ were established in the late 1980s under a Tory government city technology colleges) and in the early 2000s under New Labour (City Academies) but the market experiment with our state education system went into overdrive with the election of the coalition government in 2010. Free schools in Sweden and the charter school movement in the USA were hailed as bold experiments that had a lot to teach us. Within weeks, the coalition government pressed forward with widespread academisation and a relatively small, but highly influential and hugely costly, free school programme…

At first, our system was to be fixed by ‘new providers’ working on a not-for-profit basis: a rainbow of charities, religious organisations, universities, philanthropically minded businesses and, increasingly, academy chains. But - predicted by many - as more of the schools run on this not-for-profit basis face difficulties, further privatisation is urged as the only solution. Diehard free market reformers rightly point out that most schools already procure a lot of private sector contracts, for building work, IT, HR and school improvement services, so why not go the whole hog and run schools directly for profit? Suddenly, for-profit schooling is the logical, the necessary, the urgent next step. A Policy Exchange Report, co-authored by the influential New Schools Network, written before 2010 argued that profit-making schools should be allowed; the Adam Smith Institute advised the government to allow profit-making schools in 2011; the Conservative think tank BrightBlue advocated running schools for profit in early 2013. In private papers drawn up by Michael Gove, made public in summer 2013, revealed plans to convert academies and free schools into profit-making businesses ‘using hedge funds and venture capitalists’ to raise money. Worldwide, the education market was estimated at $4.4 trillion in 2013 and is set to grow further by 2017. Many organisations want a piece of this lucrative education pie.

We’ll be posting more short extracts over the next few days. The book is available for Kindle from Amazon at £3.

Myth One: 'Comprehensive Education has Failed' is here.
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Neil Moffatt's picture
Tue, 10/02/2015 - 12:45

As I have said before, the profit motive often fits poorly in vocational domains such as education and healthcare. A Ravitch points out, and as anyone even remotely aware of the massively over-priced insurance based US healthcare system, the US illustrates how privatisation can fail the public badly whilst lining the pockets of the rich.

Both the Tories and increasingly Labour are heavily financed by, and therefore beholden to industry, so they are blinded to this problem. They operate with short-term financial gain and party survival to push for privatisation. The whole Academy idea was just that.

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