Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Liberty Alone on competition in education

Writing about some comments from the admirable Matthew Huntbach, Liberty Alone gets it just right:

He says:

The reality is that school teachers actually feel under intense competitive pressures to do whatever it is to drive their schools up the league tables, and this is having a negative rather than a positive effect on education.

I agree that teachers are under pressure to push the school further up the league table. However, this is pressure to conform to outside imposed targets. In a market, the pressure is to create what people actually want, not what some government department thinks people should want.

The current situation is like trying to meet this month’s quota for tractor production. Its an arbitrary target which has little to do with what is actually desired or needed.

In a market the pressure is to produce something which enough people want to make it worthwhile. So whilst some people want tractors, they will want different things from their tractors. Different companies can specialise in different types of tractor, or they could divert their energy and capital to the production of a different type of farm machinery for which there is a demand.

Thus, competition is driven not by government targets and trying to do best at them, but by the demands of the customer, and the customers are not a homogeneous group with the same desires and expected outcome.

Schools would then be able to specialise. Some people may prefer a school which gets very high grades at GCSE above any other considerations. Others may prefer a school which has a broader focus, or which specialises in a particular subject area. There are any number of considerations.

It is worth adding that the Conservatives, with their business-inspired vision of less successful schools being taken over by more successful ones, share this faulty assumption. In a sensible society schools would not all be trying to do the same thing: they would be trying to do many different things.


Tristan said...

Why, thank you for the nod :)

And yes, I'd agree with you on the Conservative's ideas as well. They're still committed to central management, just trying to find a more efficient way of doing it.

Matthew Huntbach said...

I think you've failed to note the point I was making.

Tristan was arguing that schools are poor quality because teachers are under no competitive pressure to improve, and that the introduction of a voucher scheme would place a lot more useful stress on teachers and make the lazy bastards work harder for fear of getting the sack or losing all their pupils to "Lessons 'R` Us" down the road (I paraphrase).

I have noted that, on the contrary, teachers are under huge competitive pressures because they seem to feel they have to aim to come top of the league tables in their LEA.

Now Tristan seems to be suggesting that the pressure to come top of the league tables is all due to these being government targets rather than parental pressure, and parents as consumers have other demands.

I'm afraid this is largely bollocks. If parents didn't pay so much attention to league tables, then school teachers wouldn't feel forced to compete to come at the top of them. If we had a voucher system, most parents would still think "higher up the league table, better the school" and the same pressures that exist now would exist then.

It would be very nice if "Some people may prefer a school which gets very high grades at GCSE above any other considerations. Others may prefer a school which has a broader focus, or which specialises in a particular subject area" but they are free to think in that way right now over school choice.

In short, yes, I agree that "In a sensible society schools would not all be trying to do the same thing: they would be trying to do many different things". Where I disagree with Tristan is with the supposition that the introduction of vouchers will usher in such a sensible society. The competitive pressure which Tristan thinks vouchers will introduce already exists. It's people's small-mindedness rather than government pressure which means that competition tends to be measured in a rather limited way.

One might say "ban the league tables" (actually it has been said). But then wouldn't the competition people be up in arms saying this was denying the consumer a vital figure in making a realistic choice?

Tristan said...


Given the situation is that a teacher will be classed as a failing teacher by OFSTED if they don't do well in the government mandated targets and don't teach how central government think they should teach, no matter how good they actually are at teaching and inspiring children, I think your argument falls down massively.

The pressure is not primarily from parents, it is from government. The fact that the only easily available measure for how good a school is comes in the form of league tables showing how a school conforms to targets leads to most people looking at the targets to gauge school performance.

Your argument seems to be that change is not worth it, because in your opinion the end result would be the same. Its an argument I reject because it is essentially conservative (and I think shows a lack of imagination).
I want to give people freedom to choose the education which best suits them or their children. If the result is similar to today then so be it, at least its what's been chosen rather than dictated.

I of course argue that the situation will not be the same given the greater diversity of education which will be able to be developed and the experiments which will take place to discover new ways of teaching.

Matthew Huntbach said...

As I keep telling you, people ALREADY have a choice of schools to send their children to. There are forms LEAs provide, on which you list your preferences, and it is permissible to apply to schools in other LEAs as well.

I'm all for removing restrictions on schools telling them what they may teach and how they should teach it, so that schools themselves may decide and see what sort of response they get in terms of pupil applications. Remember, I replied to your blog in response to Charlotte Gore's concern at one sort of school which had decided to teach and organise itself in one sort of way. Charlotte didn't like it and said we should campaign against schools which work in that way, I said I didn't like it either, but if we are to be true to our idea that schools should be free to teach how they like and parents free to choose what schools they like, we have to accept they may choose school organisation and teaching which we may not like.

I've also said elsewhere that schools should just dropped being so obsessed with SATs. No child in later life ever loses a job opportunity or a university place because "at the age of 10 you achieved X in your SAT but we require Y". So why all the fuss? They are just a measure the government has decided to impose as a rough test of how schools are doing in the basics. It would be better if kids weren't particularly trained for the test, and just sat down one day to do some boring exercise which is the SAT only they don't know it. Maybe pick up if a school is looking really weak in the results, but does it really matter which comes top of the table (it's usually just a measure of middle-classness anyway)?

My concern is that what you propose as a solution actually isn't tackling the real problem, and it's fashionable amongst commentators mainly because these commentators send their kids to private schools so don't know how LEA schools run, and just imagine there's no choice, no competitive feeling, and the council tells then what to do.

As a university lecturer, I'm passionate about this, because I can see the results of education which is focussed right from the start in just passing the tests: dull students who aren't interested in the material but obsess over "exam technique" so the only questions they ever ask you is "will it come up in the exam?" and "how much of this do I need to know to pass the exam". The thing is that the studenst who do well on the tests are those who are genuinely interested in the material and don't obsess about exam technique and the exact format of the tests.

I can also see how university league tables have a detrimental effect on university education because the thing they measure least well is actual quality of education.

Tristan said...

And I keep telling you that is not a real choice - its a choice between government school A and government school B which have to teach the same thing to the same targets.

That is not choice. Its like saying you can have water from tap A or tap B, no chance of a cup of tea or a coffee if you'd prefer.

Even if there were choice, why do you object to making that choice wider?

I agree with you on SATs, my system would do away with them (perhaps I haven't made that clear), or at least it would allow schools to run themselves completely, so they could ignore SATs if they wished. Centrally implemented targets would have no place.

The whole point of my system is it aims to give schools the fullest possible freedom, which is what you seem to object to, unless you have an ideological objection to private education, in which case, send your children to a state school, but let others have the choice.

What do you think is the problem?
The symptoms you refer to are what my proposed system would tackle at the root. There would be no central targets, no national curriculum.
Schools would be independent of all that, and parents and children would have real choice.

Think of it this way:
There are a few shops, all run to the same specifications, but the staff and some of the products differ slightly. That is the current state system.

If you want to go to shop A, but they've sold out of all their stock you are forced to go to B even if you don't like it.
Under my system, not only would there be more choices which are substantially different, you would also be able to set up your own shop how you like, or someone might see that there's quite a few people like you and set up a shop to cater for you.

That is the difference. Its not just about allowing the state sector to fund places at private schools, its about opening up the education market to lots of competitors. Allowing freedom to experiment, allowing Schumpterian creative destruction loose.

You have so little faith in people that you think they must be made to learn how you think they should (or that's how I'm reading you).
You assume that given the chance to have different styles of teaching people would still just go for those who offer the best exam results.
I think that's overly pessimistic, and frankly deeply conservative.
I like to credit people with more intelligence, at least enough people to influence the reputation of a school (and with competition for pupils, schools would also advertise to gain the sort of pupil who they feel they can benefit most).

Matthew Huntbach said...


You have so little faith in people that you think they must be made to learn how you think they should (or that's how I'm reading you).

Well, you are reading me wrong then. Please quote anything I have written which can be interpreted as wishing to force a particular way of learning on people. Which bit of my

I'm all for removing restrictions on schools telling them what they may teach and how they should teach it, so that schools themselves may decide and see what sort of response they get in terms of pupil applications"

don't you understand?

Tristan said...

You are arguing against greater choice in education - that implies to me that you wish to have a set model in education - perhaps its a broader model which allows more leeway, but its still a set model.

You argue against diversifying education suppliers, which means you must want state run schools, which, due to the fact that they are dependent directly upon the state for funding, you are restricting the way schools are run.

Matthew Huntbach said...

I am not arguing against it, simply noting that what you propose isn't as far removed from what already exists as you suppose.

I'm happy for schools to be far more free on what they teach and how they teach than they are now. I do note that, contrary to popular beliefs, the LEA right now has almost no say on what they teach and how they teach it. It already passes the money on to the schools for them to do what they like under the guidance of their governors (i.e. parents and the like) and the national curriculum. We could knock the latter out by abolishing it.

If we pull off the rosy-tinted spectacles and get real about what you really want and how it would differ from a hands-off version of what we have, you intend any number of schools to be opened. That is, the state doesn't have the power to say "no we have enough school capacity, we don't need more schools". You switch off the budget control, which is currently what teh LEA does. Well, okay fine, you will shell out more money to whoever want to open a school, while paying for the existing ones as well, since closing them would restrict choice.

So, yes, we can have greater choice by having over-capacity. Over-capacity costs more. This means a big increase in tax to pay for it. What are you going to tax to raise the money?

What you say sounds nice, but do we want to be "tax and spenders" whose answer to everything is "throw more money at it"? Aren't we supposed to be people who have financial sense and so who do feel one ought to draw up a budget rather than just throw money at whoever asks for it?

Anonymous said...

Surely, if the market is competitive you wouldn't have over-capacity, the capacity would be what the market could sustain. If a private company wanted to start a school it could, but if it didn't provide service that consumers wanted it would soon go out of business. Or alternatively, if it did provide a better service than the schools currently available in the market, those schools would lose money and go out of business as parents and children moved to the new school. Either way, isn't capacity optimal?