The selling of schooling: how the profit motive has become acceptablePosted: April 4, 2013
The Institute of Education has just published a profoundly depressing article under the heading “The selling of schooling: how the profit motive has become acceptable”. The article summarises the argument of the new edition of Stephen Ball’s book “The Education Debate”.
The book makes some very fundamental points about the whole nature of public services and how they have changed over the past 25 years. Ball argues that education policy “is now almost entirely subsumed within an overall strategy of public services reform”. And policies over the past decade have played a key role in “wearing away professional-ethical regimes and their value systems” (which favour collaboration and community spirit), replacing them by entrepreneurialism and competition.” There is a democratic deficit which is “recreating the ‘patchwork’ system of schooling that existed before 1870″. The “freedoms” and diversities of the new education system are re-introducing long-standing social differentiations. “Selection and segregation are an insistent sub-text of post-1988 education policies,” says Ball.
These are issues rarely discussed in polite company. They apply as much to the health service, railways, energy companies and all the other public services and utilities. Essentially, the neo-liberal model has replaced democratic accountability with market forces and regulators like Ofsted, Monitor and all the rest.
It is of course possible to have a rose-tinted view of the past. Democratic accountability was often pretty nominal and too often services were run in the interests of providers not users. But marketised systems provide a huge incentive for organisations to try to manage the system in their own interests. This can mean sending in dodgy mortality data or increasing the number of private beds in an NHS hospital. It can mean deliberate deception over energy pricing. Or it can mean rigging the school admission system, getting rid of challenging kids or pushing them into courses that flatter schools in the league tables.
That way lies, at the basic level, organisational (and for many, personal) survival and at a higher level, the glow of being rated outstanding and the rewards that come with a healthy bottom line. Regulation forces organisations to focus on what matters to the regulator and ultimately to ministers. We value what we can measure rather than the other way around.
Public organisations have also taken on the financial expectations of private sector bodies. So when South London NHS fell into debt, it’s treated like a private company – it must pay off its debts and downgrading Lewisham A&E is part of how that will be done. Is this not to lose sight entirely of the purpose of the organisation? – it’s there to serve patients and while obviously financial issues matter, patients should not be paying the price. The whole point about a National Service is surely that risk is shared rather than leaving one small group to take all the pain.
It’s easy to talk about what is going wrong but much less easy to identify what a new definition of public service would look like. No one would want to undo the shift to institutional autonomy that began for schools in 1988. Nor are parents or patients likely to accept a return to central dictation of how and when they access services.
So there is an urgent need for a new definition of how public services should operate and how they should be held accountable – fundamentally we need a new answer to the question “what is the difference between a public service and a commercial organisation”. Neo-liberals would say “as little as possible”. The results of that approach are however becoming very clear. Stephen Ball demonstrates the impact on education as inequality is reinforced. Fraud in the selling of energy is another as is Mid Staffs.
So that new definition is urgently needed before we have lost sight of the whole notion of public service and before the nightmare vision presented by Stephen Ball comes to reality.
Ideas anyone? More next week.