The selling of schooling: how the profit motive has become acceptable

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.


10 Comments on “The selling of schooling: how the profit motive has become acceptable”

  1. Thank you, John. A thought-provoking blog which sends me off to buy the new edition of Stephen’s book.

    I have the glimmer of an answer in terms of schooling.

    It starts with the old view of a professional as one who is trusted to act in the best interests of another in ways which the other may not be able to comprehend. Thus teachers assess the educational needs of their pupils and respond accordingly, drawing on their training, experience, discussion with colleagues, and professional commitment, and in the process engaging themselves in learning how to improve their practice. [It is, of course, very different from the current factory model of schooling in which teachers are controlled in their work and measured in performance by government]. So, if the public service of state schools is to be based on trust, how can it be seen as accountable?

    The answer, I believe, is in bottom-up accountability – as opposed to the current top-down accountability which comes from government performance measures, league tables and Ofsted inspection. (All of which I would scrap). I have a chapter in my ‘Education for the Inevitable’ that sets out what this might mean: it follows a chapter entitled ‘Goodbye to government control’. In essence it starts from self-evaluation by the school based on discussion between teachers, parents, pupils, and governors leading to a report to the local community and the local administration (note: ‘administration’ not ‘authority’). The local administration, through its local inspectors, may challenge the report if it deems necessary. The local administration identifies any issues of general concern and reports in turn to a National Education Council (which is independent of government) . Every two years this Council lays a report before Parliament which may, for example, recommend a redistribution of national resources on the basis of what it has learned from the local administrations. At that stage ministers may be called on to act.

    So, in a nutshell, the public service of education should be based on trust of teachers and bottom-up accountability, in pursuit of intangible wealth for their pupils.

    But you pose a further question : how does this differ from a commercial organisation?

    Sadly, in effect, because commercial organisations are committed to create tangible wealth for their shareholders, they seem to work on the basis of mistrust of employees, as though they doubt whether employees will work hard (for company profit) unless subject to top-down accountability involving sticks (performance targets) and carrots (bonuses).

    So, as a comparable nutshell, commercial organisations act as though they mistrust their employees and so need top-down accountability, in pursuit of tangible wealth for their shareholders.

    Is this what we want for our schools?

  2. trevor fisher says:

    I have commissioned a review of the Ball book for the next education politics. It is now vital to stop talking about education alone, and make the links with other campaigns. The health one is the key issue, and on hospitals I reccomend the article in the current (15th April) London REview of Books on how stats on hospitals are crucial – “Rigging the Death Rate” is the title and it says it all.

    I would suggest at the SEA conference we have a round table with health people and invite Stephen Ball. For Profit needs to be opposed by a wide coalition.

    One small point. On the biggest scandal in NHS history, can we please stop calling it Mid Staffs. No one knows where it is. The real title is Stafford Hospital. ALthough the Trust did include Cannock hospital, that was too small to count. THe real damage happened in Stafford, and it is on the M6 and west coast main line., Not a small point. A conference in Stafford would be instantly recognisable. FOr the Autumn perhaps?

    It is my local hospital. I live a mile and a half from it. When I had to have hernia ops, I went 15 miles up the road to North Staffs infirmary. It was widely known in Stafford there was a crisis well before it hit the headlines.

    The big problem was getting the news out. To its credit, it was the Daily Telegraph that did it.

    THe question is: Why could the familiies not get the news out that they took food into the hospital to feed their loved ones and the patients were left in urine soaked beds? It was at base a crisis of a secret culture. Which is not being talked about in education.

    trevor fisher.

    • OK Trevor

      Suppose I take my ‘education nutshell’ and try to apply it to other caring professions? So we have:

      In a nutshell, the public service of education should be based on trust of teachers and bottom-up accountability, in pursuit of intangible wealth for their pupils.

      In a nutshell, the public services of nursing, medicine and surgery should be based on trust of nurses, doctors and surgeons and bottom-up accountability (from self-review of hospitals to national bodies), in pursuit of intangible health for their patients.

      In a nutshell, the social services should be based on trust of social workers and bottom-up accountability, in pursuit of intangible good of thir clients.

      A bit naive? But perhaps a move in the right direction.

      Trust is the essential factor.


  3. trevor fisher says:

    sorry Michael, Trust is not possible. You really need to read the Francis report to see how the managers behaved. They knew in May 2007 what was going on, and covered it up. But the article in the LRB is better as it shows that not only did this happen in Stafford hospital but in other bad places, and that at least one company was advising managers how to fiddle the figures. The title of the article in not “RIgging the Death Rate” for nothing.

    The history of academisation particularly in the secondary sector has been of heads and governors jumping into bed with politicians with no concern for their schools or their communities. Not one has ever balloted even the parents to the best of my knowledge.

    Then there is the head unions jumping into bed with Gove on performance related pay.

    The Black Papers long ago smeared teachers as not being trustworthy, which is why we have OFSTED, which cannot be abolished. It can be reformed and should be, but the era of the Secret Garden is over.

    In all public services we need systems that can be proof against abuse of trust. If you think this can be avoided, then I am afraid you will indeed have to read the Francis report on what happened at Stafford Hospital.

    Or come over and talk to those who had loved ones in the hospital. Mature Times, the free paper for over 65s, has a front page article on patients who drank the water from the flower vases on their bed sides because they had nothing to drink.

    Maybe in fifty years time we will get public service ethos back. But trust is non existent and we should not even use the word

    Sorry. But I live in Stafford. I have insight into what went on.


    • Trevor. If you deny trust you deny the one thing that can save our society. Three quotes from the introduction to the Francis report.

      <The Inquiry Chairman, Robert Francis QC, concluded that patients were routinely neglected by a Trust that was preoccupied with cost cutting, targets and processes and which lost sight of its fundamental responsibility to provide safe care.

      <The Trust failed to listen to patients' concerns, the Board did not review the substance of complaints and incident reports were not given the necessary attention.

      The awfulness that happened at your Stafford hospital (and elsewhere it seems) is that the erstwhile care the doctors and nurses were trained to give to patients was blotted out by management criteria. Performance targets and cost cutting has led in hospitals to damage to patient care in the same way that in schools it damages the all-round education of children (but here death is not the consequence).

      Whereas in schools I want bottom-up accountability to start with the self-review of collegially working teachers and taking account of parents, governors and children’s views, in hospitals I would want nurses, for example, to be working the same way and taking account of patients’ and their relatives’ views. But professionals need to be trusted. Ok that broke down in Stafford and elsewhere – but because of top-down requirements and top-down measures of accountability that enabled bad management to corrupt the process.

      Forget the Black Papers and their ‘smear’ of teachers. It was long ago. Opinion polls put parents trust in teachers high. Look back at what you have said. Take politicians, performance-related pay and Ofsted out and there is room for trust in teachers to grow.

      Remember I talk of trust not Trust!

      (I’ve downloaded the LDR article by Paul Taylor but not yet read it)


  4. trevor fisher says:

    Dear Michael

    The trust issue does go to the heart of the relationships in a society, but unless there are sanctions and structures the trust can and will be abused. We are now moving towards a much worse system than before where profit is being injected into public service. This has to be stopped precisely because the ability to trust people motivated by the profit motive is nil. Alas all current evidence is that when the secret garden operates, whether or not profit is involved, the result is to pevert the system.

    In the college system, when franchising was allowed after the 1993 removal of local authority control, it was accompanied by massive financial abuse. Eventually the system had to be centralised by setting up a quango. With the academy sector, it is clear that academies abuse their powers especially over admissions, which become selective both on ability and socially.

    That is why I don’t support autonomy, or what I would call the anarcho syndicalist model of runnign schools. All power corrupts, There have to be overarching structures with power to intervene to prevent abuses.

    The Black Papers set the paradigm and while they have been forgotten, look at the attack made on you by Gove in the Sunday Mail, and then look at the Black Papers. That is where it comes from. WHile there are positive views of teachers in the latest surveys, there are also negative views of the system in other YouGov surveys, and I plan to publish both in EP.

    There have to be systems to protect society and the vulnerable. We trusted Jimmy Saville and his cohort of loveable rogues. Even though the rumours were common knowledge in the 1980s. IT is an absolute as the old saying has it – eternal vigilance is the price of freedom


  5. Dear Trevor

    On trust we sing from the same hymn sheet, but I think we differ in our prayers. I agree that ‘when the secret garden operates … the result is to pervert the system’. (Not always, but enough times to matter). Yes, ‘power corrupts’ and daily we see examples of this. Yes, ‘eternal vigilance is the price of freedom’ – which is why blogs like this matter and need to underpin future policy. And yes “there have to be systems to protect society and the vulnerable’.

    You say you ‘don’t support autonomy” or what you call ‘the anarcho-syndicalist model’ for schools. As such, nor do I.

    But have you read Chapter Seven of my ‘Education for the Inevitable’ which is entitled ‘Effective Accountability: Bottom-up, Not Top-down’ ? I discuss in some detail the role of parents, teachers, school governors, local community, local administrations, a National Education Council and Parliament in my envisaged process of bottom-up accountability. It draws heavily on ideas of the earlier Chapter Four ‘Everybody Wants a Good School, but What is a Good School’. Essential to my concept of ‘trust the teachers’ is the replacement of the classroom anarchy of pre-1988 schools and the present day government-directed child-factories, by collegiality in autonomous schools as spelled out in this chapter.

    So I am arguing for trust within a democratic framework. But when an individual or a whole school misuses that trust I envisage that it would be local inspectors (not Ofsted – this body perpetuates the factory model of schools) who act decisively – and prompted by protected-whistleblower parents, or teachers or local community members.

    It is democracy, not anarchy, that underpins my believe in trust.

    But, of course, schools reflect the current mores of society and, sadly, over the years trust in ones’ fellows has diminished (as surveys show). Campaigning for this trend to be reversed explains why Chapter One of my book ‘Truth Must Talk to the People, and the People Must Talk to Power’ is not about schooling as such but about creating a truly free press, freed from the potential malevolence of press barons, and seen as an educative force for adults; and goes on to look at future ecological issues and community development and shows why they are relevant to today’s schools.


  6. trevor fisher says:

    this is fair comment and we agree on fundamentals. Certainly people should read your book, and to put the full details of the book and how people would get it would be valuable. The key issue is that all progressive education requires a democratic framework and that is not on offer in the academised programme

    I look forward to reading your analysis of the Pearson RSA commission on a fully academised system and it would be good to see it on this site.,

    The idea that 24000 institutions can be autonomous is basically anarch-syndicalist. I don’t think even Gove believes it, but that is the government line.

    So while the drive is in that direction, it makes other arguments of limited value. We need to warn people that a competitive market in education, whether or not profit driven, will be disasterous.

    If we can win that argument all the other desirable things may become possible

    best wishes trevor fisher.

  7. Dear Trevor

    Thank you for an invigorating debate. Yes we agree on fundamentals.

    You ask about my book: ‘Education for the Inevitable: schooling when the oil runs out’ (2011) Book Guild Brighton. (Only available at present in hardback – I hope to see a paperback edition)

    “In schools our children are being prepared for an economic world that is crumbling and cannot be rebuilt. They are not being made ready to tackle creatively whatever problems (inevitably now unknown) may arise in their lifetimes. By the time our five-year-olds, just entering school, are in their middle age, the world will be very different.

    “Inevitably, and probably sooner rather than later, our economic system, essentially based on continuous growth, turbo-consumerism, massive inequality between the greedy rich and the needy poor, and a me-first culture, will crash down. It may come from climate change and the consequences of global shortages of food, water, and energy. It may come from oil reserves running low and the price of fuel rocketing with gross consequences for freight, personal transport and domestic heating. When it happens, community life is likely to be much more significant than today.

    “This book argues for local schools with a strong community ethos, collegially managed, independent of government (with an end to Ofsted, Sats, GCSEs, league tables and Whitehall micromanagement) and recognised by parents as ‘good’ schools.”

    Best wishes


  8. Richard Hatcher says:

    The spread of privatisation is at the expense of local democracy. Take academies. Fewer parents and no staff entitled to places on Academy governing bodies. Chains appoint the majority of governors, with strategic decisions taking place elsewhere. And of course no role for local elected government and the wider community it represents.

    Of course it is true that local government has often been bureaucratic rather than democratic. But what might a reinvigorated and democratised local school system and local authority look like?

    The starting point is that a local school system is not just a collection of individual schools. It is more than the sum of its parts. It is a system in which the parts affect each other. To meet the needs of the whole community it needs to be able to do three things: to offer an appropriate range and diversity of provision; to be capable of effective innovation and improvement; and to embody principles of equality and social justice. No market system can guarantee these. It needs a local authority with two defining features. One is democratic participation in its policy-making by all stakeholders – by which I mean school staff, governors, parents, school students as appropriate, and the wider community. Every citizen has a stake and should have a say in their local school system. The second feature is the ability to translate policies which have the legitimacy of having been democratically deliberated and decided into school policies and practice. Without that democratic decision-making is meaningless.

    To begin with the question of participation. What institutional arrangements might make participative local democracy in the school system possible? There are three.
    • An Authority-Wide Education Forum
    • Democratisation of the structures and procedures of the local authority
    • Neighbourhood Education Forums

    First, there needs to be a structure at the level of the local authority as a whole where parents, teachers, support staff, other professionals, school governors, and members and representatives of the local community can come together to discuss and take positions on key issues of education policy and practice. Its purpose would be to discuss key policy issues.

    The local authority should resource the Forum and engage with it, which means there needs to be a democratisation of the structures and procedures of the local authority itself, so that the voices of the Forum can be heard and can contribute to policy discussions. For example, the Education Scrutiny Committee should be opened up to representation and input from the Forum.

    Finally there need to be similar Forums at the level of the locality, the neighbourhood. We can call them Neighbourhood Education Forums. They should be linked closely to the existing local partnerships and networks of schools. Ideally they would be linked to the other structures of increasingly devolved local government – ward and constituency committees, neighbourhood forums etc.

    Neighbourhood Education Forums also open up the possibility of creating a learning community that brings together the local and the wider society through the collaborative construction of what the RSA calls an ‘Area-Based Curriculum’: a ‘Curriculum co-developed in collaborative and equal partnerships between schools and community partners (organisations, groups, or individuals), supported by a charter of principles.’ This area-based curriculum is not intended to restrict children’ learning: on the contrary, it would provide a bridge between the lived worlds of children and families and the wider worlds of globalised society and systematised knowledge, particularly important in tackling social inequality in education.

    What should be the role of a democratic local authority?

    The principal educational role of the local authority should be the collaborative development with teachers, parents and communities of an inspiring vision for the local school system – its guiding values, principles, aims and purposes. Michael Fielding and Peter Moss, in their book Radical Education and the Common School, use the term an ‘educational project’. They see the role of the local authority ‘as a leader and facilitator of the development of a local educational project, a shared and democratic exploration of the meaning and practice of education and the potential of the school.’. The project, or education plan for the area, would have the democratic legitimacy of having been produced through the deliberative processes of the Neighbourhood and Authority-Wide Education Forums.

    Yet without the ability to translate policy from the local authority level to the school level, and to intervene on key issues if dialogue fails, the democratic formation of it becomes meaningless. So local authorities need the power and resources to ensure that the vision and aims can be translated into specific policies in practice. The most obvious examples are the control of admissions policy and the provision of school places. But they also need the capacity to promote progressive pedagogic and curriculum innovation, and to tackle inequality, for example by identifying, supporting and resourcing opportunities for collaborative knowledge and practice transfer and development between schools.

    They also need the capacity (in terms of powers and resources) to support schools in addressing problems and to intervene effectively in schools which are under-performing, principally by initiating, coordinating and funding collaborative school partnerships for improvement with more successful schools.

    And finally local authorities have to be able to restrict the exercise of school autonomy if it conflicts with wider community interests in social justice, by for example pursuing polices which serve to disadvantage other schools, through dialogue if possible but with reserve powers if necessary.

    This is a very sensitive and contentious issue. Schools may be reluctant to concede local authority influence over anything more than admissions policy and the provision of school places. The only way that schools can be persuaded to accept this new settlement if in return they feel confident that they can have a meaningful influence over local authority policy, both through the forums and through the local authority-wide all-school partnerships which some local authorities are currently setting up.

    Of course democratisation of local school systems also entails the reintegration of academies and free schools into the local authority system and their reappropriation from private sponsors.

    This is not an argument for a return to local authorities ‘running schools’ as they did before LMS, nor is it an argument for professional judgement to be at the mercy of public opinion, which is not inevitably in favour of progressive education policies. What it is is an argument that a more egalitarian, emancipatory, quality education for all can only be achieved through a genuine partnership between schools, local authority and community, and that requires new structures and processes of local participatory democracy where an ongoing educational dialogue can take place, coupled with the power of local authorities to ensure that the policies democratically decided at the local authority level with the legitimacy of democratic deliberation through the NEFs and AWEF, representing the educational interests of the whole community, are translated into school policies and practice. Experiences of participation in local governance on the basis of collective popular self-organisation can be a practical pedagogic laboratory in which new social identities can be formed and a common popular and professional interest in progressive education can be constructed.