The Education Fallout
As was shown in earlier posts, the New Conservatives believe in less Government, and more of a role for the market. Milton Friedman was one of their gurus, and for him, if there was not a market in any part of the economy, then there should be one.
Friedman was particularly keen on the marketisation of education: one of his ideas for improving schools was to give parents education vouchers. Those parents would cease to favour schools that performed badly, taking their custom to establishments that did well. Thus a market would be had in education: this would be ideologically satisfying, and the system would be improved into the bargain.
Sadly, Friedman’s seed fell upon stony ground, and his voucher idea failed to gain traction. But the idea of a market in education endured, and is now being expanded in England. This was achieved first through the 2010 Coalition Government, and is now being driven forward with greater purpose by the solely Conservative 2015 administration.
The goal of less Government is achieved by taking schools out of the control of local Government, something which had endured for decades previously, by converting them, voluntarily or otherwise, to academies (Friedman’s maxim that all should be “Free to Choose” was in this case conveniently forgotten). The market would be broadened by the introduction of Free Schools.
Free Schools would be new schools set up by groups of parents, faith groups, or through sponsorship. They might also be set up, or managed, by academy chains. As with academies, there would be no local Government control. The curriculum could be varied, and teachers could be recruited from the ranks of those who had not qualified as teachers. This had the additional benefit of offending the teaching unions.
But why the upheaval? This could be justified by the apparent decline in English school standards relative to other countries, as shown by the OECD PISA rankings. This reported decline was splashed across many newspapers, demonstrating, so it was said, evidence of declining standards. That the number of countries surveyed had increased over time, thus rendering meaningful comparisons less useful, was not allowed to enter. Those wanting reform of the education system had their evidence, and their backing.
Those demanding reform - of what kind was often not specified by the right-leaning press, the most strident critic of Government education policy - got their chance on that change of Government in 2010. There would be more choice for parents - thus meeting the ideological requirements of the New Conservatism. But since then, there have been problems with both academy chains, those companies that oversee schools that have been converted to academies, and with Free Schools.
Many academies and Free Schools did not improve on the state schools that they replaced, or existed alongside. Parents realised that, with local Government no longer responsible for these schools, a control mechanism had been taken away, and not necessarily replaced satisfactorily.
Some academy chains have been accused of indulging in bullying staff in response to being told that standards are not rising as expected. Higher staff turnover has been reported. One trust was stripped of all five of its schools only last month: these problems are not mere teething troubles. The first Free School to close did so two years ago; it would not be the last.
There have been instances where schools have failed to open; at other times, they have been woefully under-subscribed. Academy Trusts have on occasion closed down. There have been accusations of fraud and other impropriety, which have necessitated Police involvement. One Free School was unable to find premises in the town where it was set up, and was moved to the fringe of a nearby airport - in the neighbouring county.
The Free School programme in England long ago went more than £1 billion over budget. So have those PISA rankings improved? The answer is, not yet. And there is a sting in the tail which many adherents of the New Conservatism would rather not discuss.
Sweden, the model for Free Schools, has suffered … a precipitous fall in its PISA rankings since their widespread introduction. All manner of reasons are being put forward as to why this decline is down to some other cause. But it is at the very least embarrassing.
What is also difficult for many New Conservatives to understand clearly is that this experiment - for that is what it is - is being performed on real pupils, those children who only get one chance to have an education.
The New Conservatives do not allow this to concern them; their ideology says that choice allied to less Government is the right thing to do. Concerned parents, whose usual priority is to secure a good education for their children, may not find this convincing, especially when what has resulted has all too often been more Curate’s egg than magic bullet.