Why do educational standards fall following marketisation?

Roger Titcombe's picture
My book, ‘Learning Matters’ addresses this question in relation to the English education system.

Further evidence for the negative effects of the imposition of a free market, competition based framework on a national education system has now emerged in Sweden. The latest admission of such failure in described in this Guardian article of 10 June 2015.

There now seems little doubt that the decline in standards correlates with the free market based changes made to the Swedish education system. What is missing is a mechanism and associated evidence of causation. ‘Learning Matters’ provides such evidence in the context of the changes to the English education system that are being driven by the same ideology. Nowhere else is this argument being made in relation to published research evidence. The theme is developed throughout the book, which needs to be read to fully understand the argument. However the kernel of it is in Section 5.11, which is reproduced in full on my website here.

My hypothesis, an invitation for others to argue about, is that degraded and corrupted curriculum involving the large scale abandonment of pupil practical activity in science lessons and the increased substitution of crude behaviourism for developmentalism as the ruling pedagogy in English schools, combined with successive perverse outcomes arising from the operation of the imposed market are combining to produce an ever tightening spiral of real educational decline that continues to manifest itself in new and often surprising ways.

The Swedish experience of the neo-liberal experiment in national education policy adds to the evidence base. In Sweden the national government at least appears to be recognising the mistake. Not so here in the UK or in the US where evidence of failure is more likely to be interpreted as being the result of policies not being applied with sufficient rigour.

Hence the intention of the new Conservative government in the UK to create a thousand more privatised Academy schools and new Free Schools, all supported by the state. Growing opposition by parents, school governors and local councils is to be overcome by passing draconian new laws.

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John Mountford's picture
Tue, 16/06/2015 - 16:16

Roger, yet again, you have identified why we have to oppose the present government's undemocratic and dangerous reforms.

I suggest a letter should be sent to every MP along the following lines. It will, after a little tweaking, be going to my own.

Comments, please!!?

Dear MP

Education reform is a highly contentious area of public policy. The Education and Adoption Bill is especially so, threatening, as it does to force schools to convert to academy status, even if local stakeholders object. In fact, I regard curtailing rights to campaign against forced academisation as undemocratic. If such rights are to be removed by parliament, then the benefits of doing so should overwhelmingly outweigh the loss of such a right. In the case of this bill, it does not.

I ask you to vote against the new Education and Adoption Bill introduced into parliament on 3 June 2015. I do so in the interests of securing the best education for all our young people. Put plainly, I reject the claims made by the government that turning ‘failing’ schools into academies will “give every single child the best start in life.” When examined without prejudice, the facts do not support such a conclusion.

I base my opposition to this bill on three arguments:

Firstly, this reform is not supported by evidence, even as evaluated by certain organs of Parliament.

Secondly, removing opportunities for local communities to oppose ‘forced’ academisation of their schools is counter to the UN Charter of Human Rights and further contravenes the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Finally, the government, with its small working majority, failed to win a sufficient mandate to force through such contentious reform.

The Public Accounts Committee report published Friday 30 January 2015 questioned the Education Department’s knowledge of performance in individual schools. Whilst covering all categories of school, the report has this to say about academies in particular:

“There are no independent assessments of the effectiveness of academy sponsors and the Department has taken an optimistic view of sponsor capacity for too long. The Department’s main intervention for failing maintained schools is to match them with a sponsor and turn the school into a sponsored academy. Often the failing school will become part of a chain of academies run by one sponsor with a central management function. In its keenness to expand the academies programme and increase the number of sponsored academies, it has allowed some chains to grow too quickly without the necessary capacity and capability. It has currently ‘paused’ the growth of 18 sponsors because of concerns about their performance; these sponsors are currently educating almost 100,000 children. However, it has no independent source of information about the effectiveness of academy sponsors and the Department is over-reliant on whistleblowers. Ofsted is able to focus inspections on a number of academies within a chain and give an assessment about how well the chain supports those academies but, unlike in local authorities, it is unable to inspect the central management function of a sponsor (which is the primary mechanism for delivering improvement in a failing school). Unlike the powers Ofsted has to inspect local authorities, there is no statutory framework setting out the basis for what the inspectors are assessing when they look at the operation of an academy chain, and Ofsted awards no overall judgement or rating of academy sponsors.

Recommendation: The Department should obtain independent judgements of the capacity of sponsors that run more than one academy, and should use this to determine which sponsors are able to grow and when it should intervene with particular sponsors.”

As far as my own enquiries have been able establish, no action has been taken, or is in train, to address these serious concerns.

The report also considers what interventions are best to ensure that underperforming schools improve. It states:

“The Department does not know enough about which formal interventions are most effective to tackle failure under which circumstances. Of schools inspected by Ofsted in 2012/13, 48% (62 out of 129) of those which had received some kind of formal intervention improved at their next inspection. The remainder stayed the same or deteriorated, with the apparent impact of different interventions varying significantly. Meanwhile, 59% (2,181 out of 3,696) of schools that received no formal intervention also improved.

The Department has not done enough to evaluate the effectiveness of different interventions and so does not know which are the most cost-effective. It recognises that it needs to do more.

Recommendation: The Department should commission a full evaluation of the cost-effectiveness of all formal interventions in schools.”

I believe this is another vital recommendation that has not been acted upon. How can the government claim, as it does with conviction, that forcing schools to become academies is the most effective way to ‘turn them around’?

The Education Select Committee has also reported, rather negatively, on the academies programme. It questioned conflict of interest and transparency, especially for academy chains.

“The Academies Commission, the National Audit Office and the PAC questioned (in questioning) the capacity of the EFA to monitor funding agreements and hold academies to account for the use of public funds.”

Concerned about transparency over the process of academisation, the Committee recommended:

“156. Greater transparency is also needed regarding the process and criteria by which sponsors are authorised and matched with schools.”
As the Bill is currently worded, how will this work if local voices are curtailed from the outset?

In the same report, the Committee again questions the evidence:

“173. We have sought but not found convincing evidence of the impact of academy status on attainment in primary schools. We recommend that the DfE commission, as a matter of urgency, research into the relationship between academy status and outcomes at KS1 and KS2 so that sponsors and RSCs can be clear which models and characteristics are most strongly correlated with improved performance. “

I could go on identifying sound reasons why the Bill under consideration should not go ahead, especially since most of these “underperforming” schools will be primaries.

Henry Stewart of the Local Schools Network gave evidence to the Committee. He raised the following points: “Academy chains have a very mixed record, with more below average than above. Why is the government’s solution to take schools from local authorities – which DfE data suggests perform better – and give them to academy chains – where DfE data indicates schools generally perform worse.”

Mark Carney BoE Governor, speaking of the banking crisis in his Mansion House speech and highlighting the potential for “unattended” markets to fail, had this to say:

"Though markets can be powerful drivers of prosperity, markets can go wrong," according to Mr Carney.

"Left unattended, they are prone to instability, excess and abuse.

The serious criticisms of the DfE made by MP's strongly suggest to me that education is already developing as an unattended market, open to 'instability, excess and abuse'. In my opinion, Mark Carney could well have been discussing the English school system.

It is clear that the existing academies programme has produced instability, excess and abuse and one need go no further than the thorough review carried out by the Select Committee to find the evidence.

It is very pertinent, when the outcome of the general election is subjected to closer analysis, to note how the government’s unimpressive mandate to press ahead with the reforms contained in this Bill is.

The present government secured less than a quarter of the votes cast on a turnout of 66.1%. It is an interesting coincidence that the Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, is introducing legislation on rules over strikes in the public sector. The intention is to ensure that a minority of union members cannot behave undemocratically. The plan is to make it illegal to call a strike unless 40 percent of those eligible to vote do so and unless 50 percent of those votes are cast in favour of strike action. Clearly, more than 50% of the electorate voted at the recent election, but of those, only 36.9% voted in the government’s favour, a full 13.1% short of the ‘magic’ 50% deemed necessary to legitimise action. In pressing ahead with the education Bill in question, is the government guilty of operating against its own principles? I believe it is.

This has been a long submission. It could have been even more detailed as the reasons why this Bill has to be halted are many and complex. As a final thought, at a time when the government is introducing further austerity measures, the evidence clearly indicates that forging ahead with further academisation does not offer good value to taxpayers. It does not seem reasonable to press on until the recommendations made by a broad cross-section of MP’s to deal with the many shortcomings in the structural reform of schooling is acted upon.

Thank you for taking the time to consider my request to vote against the Bill, thus preventing its passage into law. I look forward to receiving your reply in due course.

Academies and free schools – Education Evidence of effect of academy status on standards and closing the gap (Parliament Home Page)

House of Commons Education Committee – Academies and Free Schools Fourth Report of Session 2014–15

Roger Titcombe's picture
Tue, 16/06/2015 - 16:44

I think that is a very good idea John. But do we need some some help? What about 38 Degrees? I feel that some sort of 'umbrella group' is needed under which all those that agree with us about this (and I believe this is a lot) would campaign together.

I urge all those that read this post to use the power of the internet (I am hopelessly too long in the tooth here) to draw attention to it.

Neil's picture
Thu, 18/06/2015 - 10:50

John do you mind if I use your text to write to my MP

John Mountford's picture
Thu, 18/06/2015 - 15:15

Certainly, Neil. It would be great if thousands of others did so as well. I am in the process of spreading the word among my own small circle of social contacts. That's not going to light up the world, but it is a start.

This appeal directly to MP's could be a boost to our efforts here on LSN to inject some sanity into the education reform debate, but as Roger says, it will take a huge shove from many individuals. The forced academies Bill in the pipeline from this government has to be fought.

Anti Academies Alliance's picture
Fri, 19/06/2015 - 12:16

AAA has organised a meeting to ask 'How do we oppose the education bill?' at the House of Commons to coincide with the second reading on Monday 22 June at 6.00pm. Speakers include Henry Stewart of LSN, Alasdair Smith of AAA and MPs Caroline Lewis, Clive Lewis and Catherine West. All welcome but allow plenty of time to get through the security check.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Sun, 21/06/2015 - 08:20

See the latest 'Dispatches' programme on Channel 4,'Exams - Cheating the System' for another important reason why marketisation lowers standards.


(You have register with Channel 4 but it's no problem)

There are two ways that cheating lowers standards.

The first is obvious. Pupils and teachers that cheat misunderstand their own developmental levels (pupils) and those of their pupils (teachers). Effective learning requires 'metacognition' on the part of pupils. Effective teaching requires teachers to understand this. See 'Learning Matters' Sections 5.2 (Shayer & Adey) and 5.5 (Guy Claxton). 'Telling' is not teaching and 'listening' is not learning.

The second is that a cheating culture will show up in PISA ratings. This is because of the sampling system needed by PISA to ensure that national results are based on pupils judged to be of comparable ability/attainment by their own national systems. I admit that I do not really understand how PISA does this but it must do it somehow. So if we have a cheating culture then this will corrupt the national standards resulting in PISA forming the correct judgement that real attainment/understanding is much poorer than the national system claims it to be. Many critics of our education system don't like PISA because the government uses our low scores to justify its marketisation reforms that are the real reason for the low scores - Catch 22. This is a misguided criticism of PISA. PISA is actually providing evidence that supports our own criticisms of our marketised system.

The 'Dispatches' programme suggests that cheating is now endemic in our national education system from KS1 to university level. I believe this to be true. Corruption is linked to markets like dog poo is linked to dogs. Both become a problem without effective regulation. As Janet points out regularly in her posts, including her latest one, our marketised education system is utterly lacking in effective regulation, therefore cheating and corruption is inevitable.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Sun, 21/06/2015 - 08:25

Nancy Bailey has written about cheating in the marketised American system.


The parallels are strong. I would expect cheating to emerge as one of the 'dog poo' indicators of the failed Swedish system too.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Sat, 27/06/2015 - 13:51

There is more on widespread cheating in this Guardian story.


Roger Titcombe's picture
Sun, 21/06/2015 - 08:32

Nancy Bailey is highly recommended. She is an SEN teacher. Her latest article makes some unlikely but pleasing analogies.


'Common Core' is identical to the ideology that underpins our government's education policy, which as in the US, fails so tragically in the area of SEN. (Not to be confused with my advocacy of a broad and balanced curriculum for all pupils up to 16 regardless of ability or putative career inclinations).

Roger Titcombe's picture
Sun, 21/06/2015 - 09:18

I am surprised no-one has posted about it, but this news item is interesting.


It has always been assumed (especially by our government) that the success of Singapore system supports their marketisation-based reforms. They need to study the Singapore system properly.

"The mastery programme differs radically from current maths teaching in England, with fewer topics covered in greater depth, and every child expected to master the topic before the class moves on. Teachers hold weekly hour-long workshops to discuss lesson planning."

It has been further revealed that the Singapore system is firmly based on mixed ability teaching.

All sorts of unlikely people are trying to jump onto the bandwagon of confusion of the use of the term 'mastery'. The Singapore system is not 'mastery' in the criterion referenced, behaviourist sense. It is something very much more developmental.

"The mastery approach is used by the Ark academy chain in England. Helen Drury, director of Ark’s mathematics mastery programme, said: “Our approach is a collaborative partnership building on our experience of what works.

“That means spending more time on fewer subjects to give students a firm foundation. East Asian countries have demonstrated that every child can succeed in mathematics, but it’s not about importing an approach wholesale.”

A spokesperson for the Department for Education said: “Ensuring every young person leaves school with good maths and numeracy skills is a key part of our commitment to delivering real social justice.

“We are pleased this research confirms that adopting a Singaporean ‘mastery’ approach to teaching will help us to achieve this.”

I don't think so. Singapore has fully state-run comprehensive system, largely based on mixed ability teaching. The curriculum is broad. Other subjects are not abandoned in order to concentrate on maths.

John Mountford's picture
Sun, 21/06/2015 - 10:40

Roger, the review of the 'evidence' for the success of Maths Mastery by Gifted Pheonix is very revealing. It would seem that all that glitters is not gold, but why would anyone expect politicians and their lapdogs to grasp this?


Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 21/06/2015 - 12:01

Schools Improvement Net also covered the story citing an article in Conversation. The author stressed caution in the finding that 'mastery' boosted maths progress by one month (gosh - twenty school days! That should make us world leaders). I commented:

'Not enough evidence to base policy on - but no doubt the Gov't and ARK will continue to push Mastery as the only way to teach maths and push the UK up PISA's greasy pole.'

'Caution needed - but ministers always ignore such warnings.'

I also linked to the Gifted Phoenix article mentioned by John.

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