Marketising education

Marketising education

Author note: 

I’ve worked in public service education for over 45 years, as teacher, head, partnership coordinator and more.  The opinions here are largely personal, but – maybe – shared by many!

You may take issue with some of the points in this piece or have comments you’ like to make and this is very welcome, using the comments facility.

Jon O’Connor (FHCLP Chair)

Making a mockery of public service

‘Marketisation’ is shorthand for the introduction into public service education of a business-based management model. What this means is that the concept that a school or group of schools are (indeed) an economic unit, and therefor a surplus or deficit model can be applied.

Marketisation of education has led to increasingly blurred lines between public service and personal self-interest. Somewhere in the new model, the market idea of incentives and high salaries has slipped in through the back door, along with the judgement of education performance on a mixture of crude education data and financial viability.

A deficit – more spending than income – is taken to indicate poor management (rather than a lack of core resourcing). Any surplus suggests the reverse (rather than a lack of core provision).

Where a group management system – notably the Academy Trust model – is involved, a “topslice” is applied, typically of around 5%, but in some cases of up to 20% for “central costs”.

This is comparatively higher than central costs reserved by local authorities for shared services.

In order to meet the increasingly competitive ‘market’ in education management professionals, for whom the personal rewards can be considerable, a notable reduction of spending at the classroom teaching base has moved funding towards the management apex of the system. Quite simply, a greater percentage of funding is now used to reward a few key individuals, with CEO salaries of up to £500k per annum: almost £10,000 per week.

So how and when did this marketisation sweep across the management of our schools?

Slow erosion of the system

The first phase of change which blurred the landmark post-war vision of the 1944 Education Act, was the erosion of the principles of this Act piece by piece under conservative governments up to 1996. Breaking the spirit of that act, grinding against its offer of wider opportunity for all, was epitomised by the famous withdrawal of school milk by ‘Margaret Thatcher, Milk Snatcher’. 

The final betrayal of true equality of opportunity has been conducted through erosive and divisive conservative legislation and regressive policies over the last 10 years.

Since around 1980, the concept of education has shifted fairly slowly around a continuous loop of unimaginative curriculum policy – largely “back to basics” surfacing every five years or so.

The idea of more fluid people skills becoming the critical factor in personal development and part of a social survival kit for employment, relationship management and more besides is still some way into the margins of what the government requires of teaching, however much most teachers recognise this as the key to real school success.

What has moved at relative speed over the last two decades has been the marketisation of education management.  There are many excellent studies on this, but here’s a brief summary.

Local management makes an entrance

The origins of this date back to 1989, when a new concept of ‘local management’ for schools shifted decision making from local authorities to the school itself.  In reality, the role of the LA as the employer was also delegated, along with more general purchasing powers. Governing bodies (now called boards, as another indicator of market-speak) were suddenly supervisors.

Coinciding with this, strong central control of the curriculum contradicted any new-found sense of freedom for learning communities. If you lived through teaching in the 90s, you wished you had shares in ring binders, produced as if trees were going out of fashion…. Which they were.

Whose bright idea was this?

The convulsion of Conservative education policy for a revolution in school management was of a different order from their traditionalist approach to what should be taught. The responsibility for marketisation has to be shared with the neo-liberal ideas of the 1997 Blair government, which had looked in vain for radical solutions to schools locked into an incessant cycle of crises. 

Their new model of management arrangements intended to break this pattern was labelled as the ‘sponsored academy’ – combining concepts of corporate social responsibility with a whole new breed of education leaders who were rapidly given the soubriquet of ‘Superhead’. 

This rare breed excelled in quick-fix management, generally rooting out the alleged lazy members of staff, forcing draconian discipline upon problem pupils, in some cases to the extent that large proportions of the school were simply expelled. Not surprisingly, research later established the conclusion that quick fixes also failed quickly – within 18 months of Superhead departures, their superglue systems had failed the same children and young people yet again.

From this limited and unaudited tailored experimentation by a Labour government, which had sailed into office with the bold mantra of ‘education, education, education’, Michael Gove led a full-throttled drive for imposing this new school management mantra of command and control.

The Superheads became part of the business ethos, with school leaders newly designated as CEO and a commercially liberated set of funding arrangements. 

2010: A Govian dystopian vision

As some have described it: “Market forces met the American Charter School model and produced a bastard child” the full version of the Academy movement was born. In reality, the Academy model was actually born through a form of intellectual IVF – without any true relationship to either parent, having limited comparison with business or the Charter schools. Michael Gove, as Secretary of State for Education was so enthusiastic about academies as promoting a revolution in revisionism that misrepresentation was never scrutinised fully. 

Indeed, the 2010 Academies Act was rushed through so as to allow early enthusiasts to consult in the summer holidays with their absent staff and families. Thus in September 2010, the first wave of 200 visionary education leaders – often self-designated Superheads – were to become near-emperors, with indecent haste and with quite limited coverage in many senses.

Despite the unrelenting political pressure over more than ten years, a majority of school communities and their leadership remained committed to the Nolan principles, the concept of public service and a significant number have still resisted the highly visible opportunities for self-interest which leaving the local authority sector could offer them.

Not least among the bizarre arguments put forward to promote the new policy were those suggesting that academy groups of four to five schools were more economically efficient than local authorities with several hundred schools. Statements like this were often propagated by a newly unaccountable DfE team of ‘Regional School Commissioners’, who oversaw schools in their regions – all except for those remaining with the local authority, of course.

So where are we now?

Fast forward to 2021 and the effect of this strategy, with successor legislation, several subsequent occupants of the Department for Education and countless billions in public assets transferred effectively to private management, has been fragmentary.

We have without question a fragmented schools system in 2021, with a majority of around 70% of secondary schools managed by Academy Trusts, with little accountability to local communities. In the primary sector the figure is lower and even more so in SEND provision – where the balancing of income and expenditure has always been more of a tightrope and the collective support of the local authority has been perhaps more tangible. 

For all schools, the relentless reduction of funding in real terms since 2010 has been highly damanging, with curriculum breadth, pastoral care and support for additional needs being particularly hard hit.

Recent data demonstrates that the new national funding formula for schools will create entirely the opposite effect to the ‘levelling up’ promised by central government – not least because there are faults within the algorithms which would at one time have been adjusted with local knowledge and some negotiation between LA and the schools themselves.

The shared expertise and common standards of local authorities has been significantly dissipated, with many capable officers becoming disillusioned and seeking consultancy work, many committed individuals becoming distraught and retiring hurt – and the load spread ever more thinly among the remaining public service workers at County Hall.

The pandemic has brought hard lessons on the consequences of this policy of vanity over veracity. The truth is that our children are no better served by a disjointed system and the beneficiaries have been strong-willed, but not always talented, education leaders, along with myriad legal fee-earners and a whole industry which has been spawned to support the sector.

Changes in the community

Folkestone was the first town in Kent to cease to have any local authority secondary school – and the town has witnessed some typically bizarre dealings under the new system, including transfer of school and community assets worth millions for mere pennies, under a system reminiscent of the football transfer market.

When one management is deemed not to be delivering – as described earlier in this article – then the simple answer is to change the management, as would be the case in any private sector takeover. However the product for schools is not raw material, it is personal development for individual young people. The disruption and turbulence of a new team coming in can last almost the whole period of their education for some generations. A school in the North of the County went through three such changes in four years – with inevitable instability and confusion for the children concerned.  

Our own local schools, regardless of systemic issues, have many fully committed and idealistic professionals, governors and families which are the backbone of strong school communities. 

Most families and parent might no longer know or care what the legal structure of their school might be, as long as the staff are doing a good job – which most are.

However, whenever there are issues or problems for an individual child or young person; when there is a clear lack of adequate staffing or of maintenance to the fabric of buildings and facilities, it can become apparent that something has been lost in the course of this Govian journey. Over and over, there is evidence of an energy-sapping need to fight for basic rights or basic provision, where once they were a given in every community.

The constant factor in this story has been the misguided marketisation of education by Gove.
Michael’s mismatching of public service and self-interest is a mistake which has no precedent and some of us will never forgive or forget.

So what’s the simple answer?

The public sector should be exactly what it sounds like: our sector for supporting communities. Through new primary legislation under the next Labour government, the education market experiment should be ended.

Facts and figures on education

For some useful statistics on education, the Mark In Style page below is a handy summary.


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