The Guardian view on education: some things money should not buy

Posted on: 2018-09-02 17:30:00

Competition makes losers as well as winners. This fact makes a simple rule for judging when it is useful to society and when it is dangerous. Can we afford to look after the losers? They are not going to vanish. From about 1979 to 2008, policymakers across the western world were agreed that there were hardly any problems that could not be solved by organising some kind of market, from which the magic of competition would produce much better results than planned cooperation ever could. The last 10 years has been a time for unlearning all those lessons and there are few places where this is more obvious than in education.

The introduction of the academy system was among other things an attempt to make central planning impossible. The market, and the self-interest of parents, would ensure that good schools flourished and bad ones – well, they would disappear, perhaps by osmosis. Yet local authorities still have a statutory duty to ensure that every child has a school place – and the political imperative to avoid discontent among parents who vote – even while the means to do so have largely vanished now that two thirds of secondary schools are academies which they do not control. One result is last week’s report that the country is facing a shortfall of more than 100,000 secondary school places over the next five years, as a demographic bulge pushes upwards through the school system.

By encouraging parental choice in schools, successive governments hoped to harness the ambition of families to give their children the best education possible. But this ambition is by its nature limited. It does not extend to other people’s children. In fact, the system lives up to Gore Vidal’s sardonic observation that “it is not enough to succeed; others must fail”. The burden of student loans increases the price of failure for those who fail to get into the “right” universities or study the “right”, for which read lucrative, subjects. The result is an increase of inequality without any corresponding increase in quality at the top.

One measure of this is house prices. State schools with a good reputation increase the price of houses in their catchment areas substantially. A survey released last week showed that outside London parents were willing to pay up to three times the average price for a house to get their children into desirable schools. In north London, a house in a good catchment area is worth £75,000 more than one less favoured, although this represents a much smaller proportion of the average price.

These figures point up a general hollowing out of trust in the state system, which the introduction of competition both reflected and greatly exacerbated. Catchment areas operate as a kind of pre-exclusion mechanism, which keeps poorer children out of good schools just as surely as later exclusions can expel them. In all this, both schools and parents are responding to the logic, and the incentives, of a system predicated on competition as a zero-sum game. We are all poorer as a result.

At the same time, universities, which do need in some cases to be places of fierce competition which will identify and train the very best scholars and researchers, are forced by internecine competition to distort their own priorities. The incentives there are just as skewed. It is at least arguable that the cost of bad or just under-resourced schools to society, as well as to the children involved, far outweighs the benefits that competition has bought the good ones. School systems should be judged on the basis of their worst performances, not their best.

Source: The Guardian

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