The dark side of competition

Fiona Millar's picture
Following on from Francis' interview with the highly articulate Suffolk parent Emma Bishton, who has explained why two new free schools will not help her area where there is no shortage of school places, I came across this excellent post from Loic Menzies of the LKM consultancy. It sets out clearly that there may be a downside for many young people in this experiment to  fuel competition by the creation of surplus places. The author also makes the point that there are other tried and tested methods to improve existing schools, if they are underperforming, like the London Challenge, the lessons from which could be rolled out across the country instead of the experiment we are currently seeing.

Do read and also vote in the poll.
Share on Twitter Share on Facebook

Be notified by email of each new post.


Ben Taylor's picture
Mon, 13/06/2011 - 18:02

To be consistent Emma Bishton surely should be the 'pointy elbowed' Suffolk parent?

Well alright then let's call the WLFS, Bolingbroke etc. parents 'highly articulate' that's the other way.

Is there an LSN style guide on this issue?

Ian Taylor's picture
Mon, 13/06/2011 - 19:12

There are many aspects to the Free School debate. In one aspect I am surprised that the present government has allowed so much freedom.
When there are already surplus places in an area I am amazed that a government which prides itself in fiscal prudence, would allow another school to be set up, thereby increasing surplus places further.
We all know that funding for state schools follows the child. So when a child goes to a school, that school receives money for that child. It looks as though the number of school places available is not relevant in terms of cost. However it is very relevant to the overall costs that the taxpayer has to bear.
At a whole school level there are costs which vary with the number of children. These variable costs are mainly accounted for by the staff costs, especially teaching staff. There are also fixed costs which do not vary with the number of children. For example energy costs, cleaning costs etc. The fixed costs add up to between 10% and 15% of the budget approximately. So if you add an extra school that is not needed, you add fixed costs which you did not need to pay for. The annual running costs for an average comprehensive is £5+ million, so 10%-15% every year of not needed fixed costs is not inconsiderable.
In addition to this problem of fixed costs there is the small school factor. To run a secondary school and offer a good range of subjects, you need a certain size. An optimum size in cost terms is about 1000+ children. This need for numbers in order to offer a good curriculum, is reflected in the budget setting of most Local Authorities (LAs), in that where a secondary school has a small pupil total, the LA normally provides extra funding to allow the school to provide a wide curriculum. The smaller the school, the larger the subsidy normally provided. This additional funding might be an extra 10% of the budget. It will vary from LA to LA.

So splitting a school population into 2 smaller separate schools causes extra costs in terms of added fixed costs, and added small school costs. This wasted money comes from the taxpayer and could be better used, either by returning it to the taxpayer, or by spending it usefully on education.
For the last 36 years that I have been involved with education, every LA I have worked in has been searching for ways to reduce surplus places, for the reasons I explain above. I never thought of the Conservatives as the Party of waste. Why would they want to have a policy that increases surplus places, and therefore add completely unnecessary additional costs to the taxpayer.?

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 14/06/2011 - 08:08

Bristol head, Clare Bradford, commenting on plans to open a free school in Bristol: "We already have around 145 surplus places and other secondary schools in the area also have places going, so this free school is just not necessary...Next year we would normally expect to attract an intake of 150 or 160 pupils, but I think if the Bristol Free School opens we will struggle to get 120 pupils. The fewer pupils I have, the smaller the range of subjects I can teach, it is as simple as that."

The government is in a quandary. The OECD has said that user choice in education can only work if there are surplus places. But these surplus places have to be funded as if they were filled. If they are not then schools with falling rolls have to cut staff and subjects as Ms Bradford has said, and this results in schools becoming increasingly unattractive to parents. If the school's roll falls so far that it becomes unviable it will close thereby reducing the number of places further. But funding empty places is expensive.

The government's answer is this spurious "competition" which is supposed to drive up standards in successful schools and cause schools which don't attract parents to close. As Loic Menzies says - school closures are wasteful and potentially disastrous for the pupils in those schools.

Andy Smithers's picture
Tue, 14/06/2011 - 18:06


What Loic Menzies also says is "Firstly, let’s be under no illusions- competition is nothing new. Ambitious heads have always competed with each other, wanting their school to be the best school in the borough" - unfortunately Clare Bradford would prefer a monopoly.
Also from Loic Menzies on increasing competition" I personally don't doubt that this will encourage some stagnating schools to improve".
Let us not forget that 200,000 pupils per year are not reaching their minimum expected improvement in English and Maths in Secondary Schools.

OECD have also supported Free School Policy and Academies to improve user choice. You continually quote OECD as the oracle of all educational knowledge so QED.

Allan Beavis's picture
Tue, 14/06/2011 - 19:56


You're going to have to be put in detention for not reading the text properly or even to the end! Let us not forget that marks are deducted for selective deduction! What Loic actually say and concludes with is:-

"So competition has been around for years and that’s healthy. However, competition for survival is new. The sole benefit it brings is an added incentive to improve but it does nothing to help schools do so. Schools have shown they can improve without having to fight for survival but the fuel for the engine of competition under excess supply is school closure and this has huge drawbacks. So why exactly are we introducing a policy which will tackle outliers whilst damaging the majority when there are plenty of alternatives out there?"

Top marks to Janet for correct understanding of text and use of OECD research

Andy Smithers's picture
Tue, 14/06/2011 - 20:13

Selective use of OECD reports / research - agreed that Janet is the expert.

Allan Beavis's picture
Tue, 14/06/2011 - 20:18

Sorry no - not selective. And Janet reads them. Properly. And understands and interprets them. I don't think she would struggle with Loic's articles or so completely misunderstand his point.

Ben Taylor's picture
Tue, 14/06/2011 - 20:22

Redundancy as in excess capacity is an interesting question. In some kinds of public services it is desirable and actually happens. The models of social health insurance in countries such as France, Germany, Holland etc. deliver this. It seems people are prepared to pay more for choice in mutual systems too because they like the difference it gives them including quality.

Not sure how to reflect this in schools but the principle exists.

It is also possible to change the costs, both kinds, so the system is not so necessarily static. But I agree that some costs can be unavoidable.

Here's where we can disagree about competition: it is a competency of all involved to repsond to this challenge. They help themselves to do this although infact what actually happens is complex and also involves collaboration aswell as competition.

Andy Smithers's picture
Tue, 14/06/2011 - 20:29

Come on Allan wise up - of course its selective use by Janet.
You yourself are just as guilty - do most parents support academies, free schools, more autonomy - according to all surveys I have seen (many reported on here) the answer is yes - most posters (yourself included), however ignore them and try to lead people to believe majority are against.
You could not make it up.......or maybe you could.

Ian Taylor's picture
Tue, 14/06/2011 - 19:40

Andy, you keep quoting these figures which are in this Guardian article A contribution from a reader after the article says “As I understand it, pupils are expected to get a level 4 and then expected to translate that into a grade C. So, the majority of pupils are now expected to perform at a level that was once achieved by the top 40%.”
I also explained to you several times why these figures are misleading and don’t tell us anything about underperformance. I don’t think you want to hear the truth. Most professionals I have worked with in education aim to identify real causes of underperformance so that they can make real improvements.

Perhaps Michael Gove is guilty of “doing an Andrew Lansley” in rushing forward an ill thought out policy which is going to cause chaos and waste a lot of taxpayers money. If Mr Gove had been forced to consult people with hands on experience of education, he might have paused, listened, and then produced a more carefully crafted policy that had the support of the professionals. Maybe we need to ask David Cameron to take a look at the policy. He seems to be seeing that, competition for the sake of competition whatever the cost, might not always be a good idea.

Andy Smithers's picture
Tue, 14/06/2011 - 20:12


Level 4b is average expected mark on completing Primary - this is an average.

What you fail to understand is that the MINIMUM expected improvement is not happening in Secondary Schools for 200,000 pupils in Eng and Maths regardless of what level they enter the secondary school at. This statistic is not about averages.
Ask a teacher (if you know any) and they will explain the difference between minimum expected progress and average progress.

It is a disgrace and what is worse some people who claim to care about education think its acceptable.

Allan Beavis's picture
Tue, 14/06/2011 - 20:12

The re-think of NHS reform has been welcome. A similar re-think and an admission of the need to consult properly with professionals and have a clear and properly strategised schools policy would be both welcome and needed.

Ben Taylor's picture
Tue, 14/06/2011 - 20:24

Don't hold your breath on NHS it's not over.

Ian Taylor's picture
Tue, 14/06/2011 - 20:52

Hi Andy. No matter how many times you assert this you are wrong. I know lots of teachers. Have been a secondary school teacher myself for 36 years and a school leader for 21 years (and before you ask, leading in an "OFSTED Outstanding School").
How long have you been professionally engaged in improving the education of children? More than Michael Gove or less?

Ben Taylor's picture
Tue, 14/06/2011 - 21:11


Can you explain something? If 200,000 pupils did not make minimum expected progress this suggests to me that they have not performed according to some idea of a distribution - let's say a normal distributuion shaped like a bell. The average is the top of the bell.

So this idea of the average and the progress are related. I don't know if the level of average is too high compared to the historical. Also it would help to define terms.

Can I check: C is expected standard?

the language of OFSTED re: below avergae also makes sense if the current average performance is too low and the whole distribution needs shifting up in value.

Andy Smithers's picture
Tue, 14/06/2011 - 21:31


Well done in your contibution to secondary schools, I hope all your pupils made the minimum expected progress in Maths and English.
Lets keep it simple - if you had 3 children coming to your school after primary with following Maths level- one at level 3b, one at level 4b and one at 5b. What would be the minimum progress you would expect each child to make ? Also what would be the average and how would you measure the performance of your Maths teachers/department against this to ensure each child reached its full potential?

Ben Taylor's picture
Tue, 14/06/2011 - 21:28

Actually the above is really to Allan

Ian Taylor's picture
Wed, 15/06/2011 - 14:09 Even Katherine Birbalsingh is starting to agree with me Alan. I have to admit this surprises me. It must make you choke!

Ian Taylor's picture
Wed, 15/06/2011 - 14:12

I mean Andy in this comment re

Fiona Millar's picture
Tue, 14/06/2011 - 20:02

It is certainly very interesting that the reverse gear is being applied rapidly to the health reforms and that competition is now off the agenda, whereas discreet intervention where there are issues for patient care is now flavour of the month. It would be good if the Coalition now applied their new found principles to education.

Allan Beavis's picture
Tue, 14/06/2011 - 20:33

Smithers -

Stop deflecting now by going off on a tangent about Janet's OECDs and explain why you couldn't understand the thrust of what Loic was writing about, then proceeded to post something which completely misrepresented what he wrote.

Andy Smithers's picture
Tue, 14/06/2011 - 20:39

Understood fully. Agree with the parts I quoted.
Conclusion is, in my opinion, incorrect.
Competion is good.
Academies, Free Schools and more autonomy are what most parents want, as you know, but choose to ignore.

Allan Beavis's picture
Tue, 14/06/2011 - 20:56

Smithers -

So you have just admitted to selectively quoting something completely out of context, misrepresenting what the distinguished, authoritative and admired author wrote, in order to illustrate another misleading statistic and you have the nerve to accuse Janet of being selective? How much more can you discredit yourself? Are you rational?

You remind me of those signs outside theatres mis-quoting critics' damning reviews to make them look positive -

"Academies, Free Schools and more autonomy are what most parents want".....over their dead bodies.

Ben Taylor's picture
Tue, 14/06/2011 - 21:22


How do you address the schools such as WLFS, Bolingbroke etc. - in these areas the parents want them.

Allan Beavis's picture
Tue, 14/06/2011 - 21:41

Ben -

I've answered that type of question all over the site. It's actually a crass question you ask. How do you address LA maintained schools etc in those areas where parents want them and don't want them to convert? Do parents know what they are getting from a Free School when their websites promise much but can't even reveal who is running them and where the school even is? Circular arguments - which you seem so fond of - go nowhere Ben

Andy Smithers's picture
Tue, 14/06/2011 - 21:19


No I highlighted 2 quotes from the report to show it was not one sided.

You, on Sunday, did the same with an article on Free Schools from the Observer and left out all the counter arguments. So how much can you discredit yourself ?
You accuse me of selective quoting from articles when you do the same to illustrate your own views - incredible.

Try and understand there are other view points than your own - I know its difficult for you.

Allan Beavis's picture
Tue, 14/06/2011 - 21:35

Smithers -

No you didn't. You either couldn't grasp what Loic wrote or you just zoomed in on one sentence to confirm your prejudices to yourself, then attempted to pass it off as fact to challenge Janet.

And no I didn't do that on Sunday - in any case, I provided a link to the Observer article in full disclosure. You clearly didn't grasp the thrust of the Observer piece either - it was broadly critical of Gove's policies. Loic's piece here was questioning the wisdoms of competition when it led to a fight for survival and suggested that there were alternatives. you didn't grasp that either.

Try and understand what people write and what the gist of a piece is about - I know its difficult for you, but do try dear

Andy Smithers's picture
Tue, 14/06/2011 - 22:03


Do look in the mirror sometimes.
Note the full article I quoted is also linked at top of page by Fiona

Go read what I actually wrote beginning "What Loic also said.." It is highlighting a couple of parts of the article you do not like. This does not make them invalid.

I know its difficult for you to grasp that anyone can have a different view from yourself but try to open your mind a little.
Also next time you selectively quote from the Observer as you did on Sunday, try not to get too upset when someone highlights the counter argument.

Allan Beavis's picture
Tue, 14/06/2011 - 22:18

Did you offer a counter argument? I hadn't noticed. I know it's difficult for you to grasp that anyone can have a different view from yourself but try to open you mind a little and not be so blinkered. Also next time you selectively quote from an article, as you did here, try not to get too upset when someone highlights your limited grasp of comprehension.

Anyway Smithers. Please don't interpret me ignoring you as a deluded interpretation that you explained yourself or you won the debate. You didn't. And my guess is everyone here is as bored by this exchange as I am by you. Good night.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 15/06/2011 - 08:51

Andy, you have accused me of cherry-picking quotations from the OECD reports. Firstly, I always provide a link whenever possible so readers can check for themselves whether I am selected only those quotes which suit my argument (Mr Gove is very good at this, as I have often pointed out).

Secondly, this is the third time I have had to remind you about what the OECD said about user choice in England. I will repeat it here:

"The government is increasing user choice by expanding the academies programme and introducing Free Schools, BUT (my capitals) needs to closely follow effects on fair access for disadvantaged children. The impact of increasing user choice on educational outcomes is uncertain..." (page 85 "Reforming education in England"*)

Later on in the same report (pages 106-7), OECD says this, which I quote in full:

"The introduction of Free Schools could decrease the reliance on admission based on residence and contribute to more user choice and competition between schools. There is however mixed evidence within the OECD area whether school systems with more user choice provide better outcomes. User choice may also increase segregation of high-ability and low-ability students, which is likely to create peer-spillovers. Several high performing school systems in the OECD area offer very limited user choice, such as Finland, Canada and New Zealand. Country-specific evidence is also mixed. Studies show no measurable long term effects of increasing user choice on pupils in Sweden and the United Kingdom (Bolmark and Lindahl, 2008; Gibbons et al., 2006). However, Gibbons et all (2006) find evidence that competition between faith-based schools (which typically do not use residency admittance criteria) seems to improve efficiency in English schools. Patrinos (2010) also finds that more school choice, proxied by private school attendance, increases PISA scores in the Netherlands."

OECD concludes: "It is thus uncertain whether the increased user choice that will be provided through school reforms will improve overall educational performance. Compared to many other countries however, preconditions for establishing a well-functioning educational quasi-market are relatively good in England. Outcome indicators for schools are widely available, helping parents to make informed choice, and schools have significant management autonomy, making them able to adjust to local needs. Funding largely follows the student, although responsiveness could be improved, as discussed above. Increasing user choice would hence induce stronger competition between schools which could provide better educational outcomes."

As you will see, if you've stuck with me this far, is that the OECD analysis is nuanced and stresses uncertainty about the effects of user choice. Their analysis is based on "mixed evidence".

In the paragraph quoted above, OECD say that the user choice in England may be helped because parents are able to make informed choices based on widely available "outcome indicators". However, earlier in the same report (pages 100-2), OECD raise significant worries about these "outcome indicators" which they describe as an "extensive focus on grades". OECD recommend that the government introduce "more sophisticated measures". They consider the "outcome indicators" on which decisions re school choice are based are crude and misleading. I wish Mr Gove's advisers would read pages 100-2 of this report - it would stop Mr Gove hurtling off in the opposite direction with even more reliance on raw exam data and the scrapping of the Contextual Value Added (CVA) score. OECD considered CVA to be a "step in the right direction".

Apologies for the length of this post. I should be grateful, Andy, if you would print it out so that I don't have to remind you again about what OECD said about user choice. Three times is enough.

*OECD Economic Surveys: United Kingdom 2011, not freely available on the internet but details of how to obtain the publication are here:,3746,en_2649_34569_47283558_1_1_1_1,00...

Ben Taylor's picture
Wed, 15/06/2011 - 11:58


"I’ve answered that type of question all over the site. It’s actually a crass question you ask."

How is it crass? I suppose the LSN's points about free schools are crass? It's just a question since when you write;

“Academies, Free Schools and more autonomy are what most parents want”…..over their dead bodies.

In the case of WLFS we know this is not true if it is nearly three times oversubscribed;

Now you and others make some fair points here at LSN about accountability of free schools, academies etc. Or are these just more crass points?

Allan Beavis's picture
Wed, 15/06/2011 - 12:17

In the case of my - and many - maintained schools, they are also 3 or more times oversubscribed. What you put forward as reasons for free schools to be popular or even exist can be applicable to maintained schools. This is why it is crass. Also circular. Same point being made over and over again as it by making them suddenly the Free School will be the miracle we have all been waiting for. Sorry. I'm not engaging with circular arguments.

Ben Taylor's picture
Wed, 15/06/2011 - 18:37


I don't see how you have answered the question.

You said most people do not want frees schools: NUT's own survey had around 50% of their sample supportive.

WLFS may not be what most people want but if it is nearly three times oversubscribed. Is it OK to ignore this kind of demand in a democracy?

If there are problems with academy processes etc. let us address these demands too.

Allan Beavis's picture
Wed, 15/06/2011 - 19:31

I did not say most people do no want free schools. What I said to Smithers was to show how he used partial quotes in an attempt to illustrate his feeble arguments. This is what I mean by circular arguments. Round and round going back to the same misinterpreted point.

Add new comment

Already a member? Click here to log in before you comment. Or register with us.