19 July 2017

The market is saving – not destroying – education

By John Thalassites

In the latest edition of his book on the British schools system, The Education Debate, Stephen Ball argues that the system is increasingly run as part of the economy, rather than for the sake of a higher good, such as the pursuit of knowledge.

Education, he claims, is less and less about knowledge itself, and more and more about the commodification of knowledge: in other words, how valuable it will be to the economy.

This has been reflected, most obviously, by the way the education itself has become a marketplace. Pupils and parents can choose from free schools and comprehensives, grammars (at least in some areas) and apprenticeships. And within the higher education system, the introduction and subsequent trebling of tuition fees has made a university education a commercial transaction.

For many people, this marketisation of education is something to be bitterly opposed. They claim that free schools, grammars and apprenticeships divert attention and resources from comprehensives – blaming the Conservatives in particular. The president of the National Union of Students recently tweeted that “finances are a huge barrier to accessing education”, and even Lord Adonis, the man who set up the system of university fees and loans, says it has become a “Frankenstein’s monster” that must be scrapped.

Yet those who dispute or lament that education is inexorably being commodified are misguided.

Education is a big business, seeking to maximise revenue streams in all its iterations. And for an industry that hoovers up £33 billion per year in income and generates £73 billion per year in outcome, a degree of marketisation needn’t be a bad thing.

Yes, the education system is now integrated into and run like part of the economy. But this has transformed it for the better.

Take higher education, which has been the real lightning rod for criticism lately.

Since tuition fees were raised to £9,000, disadvantaged young people have become 40 per cent more likely to go to university. This is, in part, because by monetising the service they provide, universities can use the increased revenue to widen access. As a direct result, more young people, particularly from poorer backgrounds, are able to benefit from a world-class university education in Britain.

And if young people have indeed become consumers, that has comes with the power to champion their own interests. The much-maligned National Student Survey links student satisfaction with tuition fee rises. If the customers are satisfied, then universities can raise fees in line with inflation. That enables well-performing universities to maintain funding in real terms, while compelling them to act on student feedback.

And what about reforms to primary and secondary education, so derided by the education establishment?

As Robert Colvile recently pointed out on CapX, free schools are generally more popular and better-performing than their competitors. They are also mostly situated in places where they are needed most. And for those with different skill sets, more than 2.3 million apprenticeships were created in the last parliament.

There is, in other words, a positive story to be told – even reclaimed – about modern education policy, and its embrace of pupil freedom.

Nick Gibb, the Schools Minister, argues compellingly that schools have been granted “autonomy… twinned with intelligent accountability”. Free schools operate from the bottom up, taking power from local authorities and handing it to communities.

Above all, if a school is performing well in academic tables and has a good reputation, it will be oversubscribed – and if a school is performing poorly and has a bad reputation, it will fail. That is accountability in action, ensuring that schools push each other to provide the best possible service. The results are clear: since 2010, 1.8 million more pupils are in “good” or “outstanding” schools, even with the tightening of Ofsted’s criteria.

In his book, Ball concludes that a “new but unstable policy settlement” has emerged in education. But that diverse educational mix has meant greater choice for parents and pupils and more competition between schools. With record numbers of students from all backgrounds attending world-leading British universities and rising standards at British schools, the introduction of market principles into education has been more than vindicated.

John Thalassites is a journalist based in London.