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.