Market Fundamentalism and Education

David Pavett writes

Current government educational policies are driven the dogma that markets (even quasi-markets) always lead to the best outcomes: markets enable the consumer to push producers to the best outcome. What is required, on this view, is a diversity of provision inspired by private (non-state) institutions between which the ‘consumer’ can make choices. This means that failing providers of schools will either be motivated, by the threat of closure, to improve their act or they will go to the wall. The quality of schools will rise as a result and everybody gains. That, at least, is the story.

It’s a story, however, that won’t bear much examination. It is based on the illusion that markets always optimise outcomes. One does not have to deny the enormous impact of markets on the progress of human society, nor the necessity for them into the foreseeable future, in order to understand that this is just plain wrong. It is not even always true in the competition between household goods. Inferior goods can and do trump better ones given such factors as advertising and market lead-times.

League tables, Ofsted reports, local hearsay and various forms of social prejudice do not, taken separately or together, provide a sufficient basis for choice. Secondly, even if they did, against everything that we know, provide such information, the model would still be wrong since it will inevitably result in some schools failing to prove the success of those that don’t. Thirdly the market model requires parents to look at schools purely as individual ‘consumers’ and not as members of a community.

Even worse, Gove’s Academy programme actually forbids the social creation of new schools and requires that these result from private initiatives. A massive part of our social responsibility is being handed over to private (“independent”) organisations making the process of education more opaque and less accountable.

And where does all this lead? Gove’s ‘open mind’ about profit-making schools is well known. He is not alone. A little-noticed document from the Free Enterprise Group (, founded by Elizabeth Truss, is rather more forthright about its fundamentalist beliefs. It was prepared for a fringe meeting discussion at the Tory conference (A Manifesto Fit for 2015: 15 Ideas to Transform Britain at Nothing is held back. Thus for education we read

Idea 9: Reward our educators.  We live in a country where we allow people to make very good money for running a chain of restaurants or hotels, but not for running a chain of schools. We need to stop undervaluing those who have the skills and expertise to ensure our children are numerate, literate and ready for adult life. The free schools programme is a welcome first step, but we need to allow the profit motive to ensure real lift off.

In the brave new world of profit-making education, decisions will depend on the money to be made – what else should a profit-making organisation be doing? If shareholding companies are allowed in on the act, and they already have their foot in the door through the relation between the non-profit making  educational arms of profit-making companies, then the ultimate duty of the governing body would be towards the shareholders.

Idea 14: Excellence academies: means-tested selection. We should allow the creation of new ‘Excellence Academies’, which would return to the historic principles that grammar schools were originally founded on – providing a means for those least well off to access a first class education, based upon academic ability regardless of background. This would allow limited selection for a number of elite state schools, for places only open to pupils from families with a household income of below a set amount. This would ensure that those pupils with academic talent and flair could be recognised, without allowing wealthier families to game the system.

Ah, the “historic principles that grammar schools were founded on” namely that a section of the population deemed to be bright should be given educational privileges over the rest (the majority) deemed to lack the necessary brain power. As always the argument is put as if the concern was to help children of the poor to get a leg up in society. The reality is that this was, and is, a simple cover for social segregation.

No arguments are presented for the 15 ideas of the Free Enterprise Group publication. Probably no need was felt to produce any. Fundamentalists hold their views independent of the facts. They just ‘know’ that they are right and the only purpose of empirical investigation is to look around for data that is in conformity with those beliefs. In the case of this pamphlet we have basic Tory beliefs stated as simply and directly as possible for that reason it is worth reading. The 40 Tory MP’s listed on the Group’s website is a mere subset of the number of Tory MPs who want to see a fully privatised profit-making school sector.

Of wider concern, thuough, is the fact that the market model of education (standards will be pushed up by parents making choice among a diversity of providers) is also apparent in much of Labour’s educational discourse. It is time move on from this approach and to argue that in education it is our social responsibility to provide all children with a good local school system which is democratically accountable to the local population. It can be done. The Finns have done it. So should we.