Should schools compete or collaborate?

Henry Stewart's picture
This could surely be a key dividing line between the main parties in the coming election. Should schools compete like businesses in the marketplace or should they collaborate for the common good?

Competition: No Evidence of Benefit

This week's Policy Exchange report on free schools was clear on the underlying agenda. Evoking Milton Friedman, they explain that the idea behind free schools was that "building new schools would create competition between schools by creating a surplus of places which would motivate schools to drive up standards and improve their provision".

Opponents (ourselves included) have criticised the government for funding free schools where there is no need for more places. For Policy Exchange this is part of the point of free schools, to create surplus places and thus create competition. The IFS has supported this view, arguing in its paper "Choice and Competition in Education Markets" that "economic theory tells us that competition is what ensures consumers get a ‘good deal’."

Policy Exchange are by no means neutral, being the original advocates of new independent state schools. However even they, after extensive study, could find no evidence overall that competition from free schools brought any benefit to existing nearby schools. The IFS report had already come to similar conclusions: "a number of different studies have found no strong evidence to suggest that English schools with more competitors perform any better in terms of exam results."

Fraser Nelson, writing last year in the Spectator, explained that the failures of free schools was nothing to be concerned about: "There are 178 free schools; next year there’ll be closer to 300. If you were to set up 300 new businesses, you’d expect at least 30 to hit trouble." However there is a big difference between not being able to buy a coffee because your local cafe has shut down and the disruption to a child in finding their school has closed.

As my colleague Janet Downs has noted, before the last election Policy Exchange co-authored ‘Blocking the Best’, supporting for-profit schools. The first step was to create independent state schools, as free schools are. At its launch Michael Gove said he would be happy to see groups like Serco running schools. And indeed Nick Clegg has claimed that it is only the fact that the Conservatives are in coalition that means we do not have for-profit schools in the English education system.

To support the case for competition, Policy Exchange quote research on the US, Sweden and Chile. One thing that these countries have in common are that none perform well in international comparisons (all being below England in the PISA tables). The Swedish experiment, a key inspiration for Gove's free schools, is now commonly described in terms such as "Sweden's School Choice Disaster". An enquiry for the Swedish government last year came to a clear conclusion that the experiment had failed.

The idea of school competition may work perfectly in (free market) theory. But the evidence seems clear: it doesn't seem to work in practice.

Collaboration between schools: A track record of success

The contrast with the benefits of collaboration is huge. The London Challenge was arguably this country's most successful educational project of the last 25 years, playing a key role in transforming the capital's schools. Led by Chief Adviser Tim Brighouse, it was always based on supporting schools and ensuring they worked together.

The Ofsted report on London Challenge is clear on this. Key to the success were successful heads mentoring headteachers in target schools, support, “without strings attached and without conflicts of interest”  and teachers being committed to all London children not just those in their own school.

The Independent reported this week on the transformation of schools in Basildon. From 7 primary schools rated "Inadequate" two years ago, there are now none. The 14 rated "Requires Improvement" are down to 9, with the expectation that, by next year, all Basildon schools will be rated Good or Outstanding.

The Basildon model, already being extended to other areas, is firmly based on all schools in the area - local authority and academy- working together, is based on co-operation, mentoring between schools, actively celebrating each other's successes and teachers being committed to all London children not just those in their own school.

Competition or Collaboration?

Bringing competition and the private sector into public provision has been a major theme of the last few decades, whichever party has been in power. However I suspect I am not alone in finding it hard to think of a service that has been improved as a result of being run by G4S, Serco, Capita or others. Neither do I share the Tory's private sector good/public sector bad view in terms of customer service. As I prepare to make a call to Virgin Media that I know will involve waiting on hold for an hour, and probably lead to them failing to do what they promise, I only wish they had the efficiency and responsiveness that I experience when I call Hackney Council.

One journalist who interviewed me about the Policy Exchange report talked about trying to talk to a free school about their, in that case, good practice. They wouldn't let him visit and didn't want to have him describe what they do. Why? Because they saw it as a competitive advantage, and didn't want other schools to be aware of it.

That is a big contrast with what I experience as a Governor in Hackney. We do have a mix of academies and maintained schools but, like in Basildon, we work together in collaboration with the local authority. The local authority administers admissions to ensure they are fair. We regularly visit each other's schools to learn from best practice, mentoring takes place between the heads, and the schools work strategically on issues from exclusions to university admissions.

Schools Collaborating: The Opportunity for Labour

The Conservative position is clear. Their ideology leads them to believe that the driving force for school improvement has to be competition even though even their own supporters have to acknowledge - in England or in other countries - that there is little evidence that it works. I do not believe that the population shares their desire to have schools competing like business in a free market. For the Greens, Caroline Lucas understands this very well - this week accurately describing the role of free schools as to "marketise" education.

There is a big opportunity here for Labour. I believe parents prefer the idea of schools collaborating and sharing best practice, rather than competing - for mutual benefit. It makes sense and also fits with the evidence of what works. Let's hope Labour make this a very clear dividing line in the General Election.




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Michele -Lowe's picture
Sat, 14/03/2015 - 17:12

On your last point, we can only hope. However, I haven't yet seen much evidence of it just yet. Still, I live in hope.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 15/03/2015 - 09:31

Henry - the OECD tends to agree with you. Volume 4 of its key findings from PISA 2012 (p54) it wrote:

‘The degree of competition among schools is one way to measure school choice. Competition among schools is intended to provide incentives for schools to innovate and create more effective learning environments’. However, it noted this assumption had been questioned. OECD’s own evidence showed that competition among schools in OECD countries tended ‘to show a stronger impact of students’ socio-economic status on their performance in mathematics’. (Note: OECD PISA tests 2012 had maths as their main focus).

The OECD advised caution when using this finding but noted it was’ consistent with research showing that school choice – and, by extension, school competition – is related to greater levels of segregation in the school system, which may have adverse consequences for equity in learning opportunities and outcomes’.

In other words, competition between schools increases segregation in a school system and this has negative consequences.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 15/03/2015 - 09:40

The irony is that if more places are provided in areas which already have surplus provision, this can result in less choice.

Take a town which has one secondary school. It has surplus places. A group proposes a free school because it wants, say, a faith school, or one with a more 'academic' focus. If the free school is allowed to open, this is likely to create more surplus places at the first school which would then have to reduce staffing and the number of option choices.

There is only a finite number of children in the town. It's likely, therefore, the town would end up with two small secondary schools with a smaller number of option choices than would be available in one large secondary.

Less choice; not more.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Sun, 15/03/2015 - 11:05

Henry, this is a very important post. Neo-liberal economic theory is clear, as you point out. The questions are whether it applies to schools (and public services generally) and whether the mechanisms needed exist in the context of learning for understanding rather than 'performance training'. We know that the operation of markets resulting in competition, choice and the very real economic and social risks of failure do indeed drive standards up and prices down in relation to goods and services that people may want to purchase. These mechanisms act through the powerful human emotions of personal status and greed combined with the very real possibility of failure that has severe economic and social consequences. The more someone wants something, or fears not having it, the greater the degree of effort they are prepared to make. The same presumably applies collectively in social institutions and workplace settings such as schools. This is pure behaviourism. If you raise piecework (pay per unit produced) rates and bonuses then output, productivity and profits increase.

In my selective secondary school we had a house system, which was an entirely artificial construct devoid of any physical substance. Its purpose was to use the mechanisms of competition to incentivise us pupils to ever greater efforts. Every summer there was an inter-house athletics competition, the finale of which was the track and field competition held on the prestigious Birmingham University athletics track. The whole school was bussed there, with the non-competitors expected to watch and cheer. Some disgracefully unincentivised miscreants totally lacking in the required loyalty to their house used to climb over the wall at the back of the track and bunk off home.

Leading up to this great day, every games afternoon was devoted to the obtaining of athletic 'standards'. These were demonstrations of individual ability to run, jump and throw sufficiently well to achieve a tick in the aggregate score of all the pupils in your house, which was factored in with the results of the day of competition to determine which house would hold the athletics trophy for the year. All very public school.

I hated everything about it. The reason was rooted in my physical inability to obtain any athletics standards at all in Years 7 and 8. There was also a fear factor. Our very fierce House Master (posts for which I suspect a distinct lack of competition on the part of the staff) threatened us with corporal punishment for 'slacking' administered in front of the whole house in the event of failure to get a 'standard'.

I was not a slacker. However I am July born, and was a late physical developer generally on top of that . This was something obvious to every boy in the school as a result of the communal shower rituals. The 'standards' were chosen at about the 20th percentile. Set too high and there would be too many 'slackers'. Set too low and every single child would be able to achieve all of them so removing all elements of competition.

The easiest standard was generally thought to be 'putting the shot'. I could hardly lift the bloody thing let alone 'put' it the necessary distance.

I will point out that by the time I was 18 I had become a very strong and manly specimen, enjoying many sports and later becoming quite a proficient mountaineer.

What is the relevance of all this? It is that in relation to 'understanding hard stuff', no amount of competitive pressure or threats help in any way. Take Newtons Laws of Motion. Galileo (my hero) demonstrated brilliantly that falling objects accelerate. This was not the legendary 'Leaning Tower of Pisa' experiment, but the one where he rolls iron balls of different masses down a slope. Brilliantly he used his heartbeat to place markers where the balls reached at equal time intervals, thus showing uniform acceleration a century before Newton. Not only that, the weight of the balls makes no difference! It is really hard to comprehend what is going on. When you factor in that parachutists descend at a constant speed (no acceleration) as do cyclists rolling down long hills after they reach their terminal speed (as all schoolboy cyclists knew) , the mystery deepens.

How would the behaviourist mechanisms of competition, incentives and fear help here? Not at all of course. They would inhibit not assist the development of understanding. The key word is 'development'. Development is a subtle matter. Cameron's 'zero tolerance of failure' wouldn't help either.

The point is that if the core business of schools is 'development' rather than raw 'production' then the ideology of the market is of no relevance.

I will return to this with specific reference to school success and failure in another post.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 15/03/2015 - 09:57

No doubt parents and children from Discovery Free School, Al-Madinah secondary provision, and Durham Free School will be comforted by Frazer Nelson's comments that some free schools will inevitably fail. But that's a price worth paying, according to Nelson, to increase competition and choice.

Remember how Michael Gove defended the opening of Durham Free School. It was a 'challenger' school in an area which was had the 'smell of defeatism'. But the Impact Assessment for DFS showed there were three Good secondary schools nearby with surplus places.

DFS should never have been allowed to open. It was a reckless use of taxpayers' money, It's caused much heartache for the children concerned who need to find, at short notice, places in other schools.

Leah K Stewart's picture
Sun, 15/03/2015 - 19:07

Thanks for the article and great discussion. To expand the last point, and extend what Roger is saying, student's really no not understand 'competition with the neighbor' any more. The world is too connected to care about national advantages in schooling. In my own humble life I've studied in Sweden with students from 15+ countries, lived in Germany and have colleagues in US and Canada... I need all of these people to have experienced as many advantages of schooling as possible because it's important for what we're trying to do together.

It just so happens that I've had a guest post published today on this theme ( It's on Nancy Baily's Education Blog. Nancy is an experienced Teacher, Education Author and Activist for Schooling. She's from America and completely fearless about pulling assumptions into the light for discussion and critique.

I guess what I'm doing is addressing, as clearly as I can, Henry's "it makes sense" to collaborate argument. I'd love if anyone here would like to see the piece and feel free to comment on Nancy's blog if you wish.

John Mountford's picture
Sun, 15/03/2015 - 19:53

My only problem with this analysis, Henry, concerns your concluding paragraph. There is no sign that Labour is going to come anywhere close to help you achieve your hope.

First, they are fast running out of time, Second their term in opposition has been marked their dismal failure to stand up for the values of collaboration that you so well champion in your piece. Finally, those of us who have been able to see through the biased reporting of education reform (in favour of aggressive competition and free market education) have waited without reward for the emergence of serious political opposition to the wasteful, flawed and failing marketisation of education.

As far as I am concerned, neither Labour nor Conservative can deliver what the nation needs. Blair destroyed the Labour party with his flawed effort to reform socialism and his failed policies (remember Education, Education Education?) In looking back it would have at lest have been honest of the party under his leadership if they had declared, Profit, Profit, Profit. That is where we stand now as political self-interest, so ably championed by the coalition government, will triumph whether Labour or Conservative are returned.

Our political system is poised to deliver a death-blow to our democracy because it is not designed to allow long-term, consensually derived democratically agreed policy changes that inevitably have to be implemented over a longer time frame than the electoral system allows. The democratic health of our nation depends on the quality of our education system. You are right, Henry, that this will not be delivered if we end up with a system underpinned by raw competition.

Get education governance out of the political arena, or we will live to see the end of state education as we knew it.

I should be free to go into the polling booth in May to cast my vote for the party I believe in rather than having to use it to keep out two parties which I don't believe in and that have brought us to this critical watershed.

Our young people deserve to be able to look forward to a more hopeful future. Help them by supporting the campaign at

Time is running out and our politicians need us to show them that the reform of education is too important for them to keep the present, truly undemocratic system in place.

Leah K Stewart's picture
Mon, 16/03/2015 - 11:07

Roger: thank you for your comment on my guest post. I've allot to learn from your work; very exciting!

John: thanks for your link to OrdinaryVoices, I've signed and added a comment which I'd like to share here as well...

Hello Friends,
I'm recently though the UK's School/Uni system. I aced it: A, A, A, 1st Class Science Degree, prizes, extra-curricular, internships, masters sponsorship offers... So, why have I signed this petition?

Our system is a load of hoops that I learnt to jump. The whole time I felt the pain of my friends who didn't want to or couldn't learn to jump like I did. The system couldn't see what I saw in them and took away their confidence.

While being showered with praised for jumping those hoops, I couldn't help but feel the emptiness- I'm only doing what I'm told, I'm only allowed to do what I'm told! Following this path lead to a technically excellent and lucrative career; a career that is so not me or where my heart is. Stepping away from it was one of the hardest and best things I've done for myself. Though the world seems to think that because I can do that work, I should do that work. I don't understand this assumption.

Ultimately, as I reflect on what happened, it seems to me that my teachers were trapped. So much of what my wonderful teachers did were things they were made to do with us by someone I'll never meet. These mandated practices and pervasive requirements for evidence of adherence mean that teachers must find a superhuman amount of willpower to simply be human and present for their students.

Students see glimpses of who their teachers really are, especially when the syllabus and exam prep are done. That's when teachers really teach, but Governments bent on control of education don't seem to understand this simple fact.


Ben Taylor's picture
Sun, 22/03/2015 - 15:32

Basildon as a case study might be interesting.

We would have to study the effects of voluntary and enforced academisation of LA schools and introduction of free schools in order to discover what is driving behaviour. I would expect to find that LA officers and councillors now have some new incentives to make things work which did not exist when they had control of all local state schools. They now have to share power with the community and the professionals and collaborate with them, rather than ignoring them for the benefit of their substandard administration and party political union cartelisation of education, where children are treated as chattel.

In particular take the values of the Essex county council's local education authority: “Giving support to all schools is a political statement we’ve signed up to. Not all authorities have."

We shall see what happens after the election. Labour nationally obviously do not have a clue and MPs like Slaughter have gone quiet. Presumably they realise campaigning to shut down successful popular free schools ain't a good idea at a general election.

If you want to make collaboration mandatory write it in to professional standards and statute and contract. Maybe make it apply to ministers. I hope if Hunt remains he will send his children to private school as he has hinted while shutting down free schools. Then we will really know the Labour party really thinks and does about collaboration for the typcial child.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Sun, 22/03/2015 - 15:54

Ben - You do have to laugh.

"I would expect to find that LA officers and councillors now have some new incentives to make things work which did not exist when they had control of all local state schools. They now have to share power with the community and the professionals and collaborate with them, rather than ignoring them for the benefit of their substandard administration and party political union cartelisation of education, where children are treated as chattel."

It is Academies and Free Schools that are independent of the community. LA's are answerable to the community via the ballot box. LA schools have elected parent governors. Their parents can complain through a proper governing body, rather than a group appointed by the 'executive'. They can also complain directly to their elected local councillor. Academy and Free School parents have no such rights.

LAs do indeed 'collaborate' with Academies and Free Schools when given the opportunity but Academies and Free Schools are not required to 'collaborate' with them, or anybody else. That is what 'independent' means.

As for 'children treated like chattel', it is not even worthy of a comment.

As for 'party political control' of schools this country saw nothing remotely like it before the present government.

David Barry's picture
Sun, 22/03/2015 - 19:27

"As for ‘children treated like chattel’, it is not even worthy of a comment."

Well actually I will comment.

My children were not treated as chattels at my Islington school.

I have been a Governor now for almost two decades. I have worked as a volunteer seeking to improve a system which has NEVER treated children like chattels.

Through that experience I have met many good people involved in state education NEVER have I come across anyone treating children like chattels in LA supported schools.


I have come across unscrupulous behaviour in the for profit, fee paying sector.

agov's picture
Mon, 23/03/2015 - 09:55

Essex is only trying to do in Basildon what LAs in general used to do before the ConDems' disastrous experiment in semi-privatisation and atomisation of the system. It is effectively a recognition of the failure of that project and can only work if the Academies and Free Schools happen to feel like cooperating.

But always good when Ben pops in. What he may lack in knowledge is more than compensated for by the hilarious way he demonstrates it.

David Barry's picture
Mon, 23/03/2015 - 10:29


"It is effectively a recognition of the failure of that project and can only work if the Academies and Free Schools happen to feel like cooperating."

"feel like cooperating"

Well I suppose there is a sense in which people cannot be COMPELLED to cooperate.....

But they can have incentives to co operate.

But in the case of Academies and free Schools they will only have an incentive to cooperate if there are enough children to go around. If there is a surplus of places, well then the schools will be in competition for the same children, and will not co operate due to un resolvable conflicts of interests.

But after one of the three key ideas behind Free Schools was to introduce just this kind of competition. For proponents of Free School like the New Schools Network, schools being unable to co operate but competing instead is a "feature" and not a "bug".

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