Current issues

Current issues

  • Is education now simply a system of franchises?
  • Is our education system, a system of 'Kentucky Fried Education' Hargreaves (1989)?

Efficiency, quality and competition

The principles:

  1. Increase competition between education suppliers.
  2. Give customers product choice.
  3. Regulate the product.
  4. 'Bad' product will be eliminated by the market.
  5. Result: greater efficiency and improved product and customer satisfaction.

The 'effectiveness' of education systems in producing required results has always been of concern to government, but increasingly during the 80s and 90s schooling has been caught up in a debates about 'value for money' and 'parental choice'. The principles of the 'market' are now routinely applied to schools.

Acting on the recommendations of the 1987 Black Report, the British government brought in the 1988 Education Act (Baker Act). Parents became 'customers' and pupils became both clients and 'products'. What is especially important about this act is that it involved increased state control not over the form of education but of its content.

The main changes introduced by the Act were:

  1. The introduction of the National Curriculum, with achievement targets set for all pupils at the ages of 7, 11, 14 and 16.
  2. Schools were allowed to 'opt out' of local Education Authority (LEA) control if the majority of the parents voting in a ballot wished to do so. Schools who opted out became 'grant-maintained'; they were funded directly from central government. In 1997 the Labour government began to dismantle such schools.
  3. The financial management of schools was switched from the LEA to the boards of governors.
  4. City Technology Colleges were introduced.

The intention of these changes was to introduce principles of supply and demand into schools. Schools were forced to compete with each other for pupils and resources. Before the 1988 Act, entry to schools was based on catchment areas. Schools did not have to compete for children. After 1988, catchment areas still existed but parents had the right to go outside them. Competition was increased by the publishing of 'league tables' of pupils' results. Furthermore, the delegation of management and budget control to schools gave them greater freedom to compete and to decide how to use their resources to attract customers.

However, the 1988 Act contains contradictory messages: One message concerns increasing centralisation and state control, while the second is concerned with parental choice and the market.

Supply and demand: Consumer choice

Along with marketisation has come increasing state intervention and centralisation. The 1992 Education Act introduced not just a centralised curriculum, but centralised school inspection by OFSTED.

OFSTED is centrally concerned with improving the quality of schooling, providing for literacy and numeracy hours in primary schools, weeding out ineffective teachers, and setting performance targets for each school. Combined with this, is the rise of parent power in schools, termed 'parentocracy' by David (1993). Parents are now customers both in terms of their supposed ability to select which school they would prefer their children to attend and in terms of their voting power as governors.

These developments have fuelled the drive towards credentialism (Collins, 1979), where qualifications are viewed as evidence of the ability to perform specialised occupational roles. Credentialism involves evaluating a person on the basis of their educational qualifications, and as such, being it itself a part of a market view of society, can encourage 'over-education', by which over supply of the basic requirements needed to carry out jobs becomes an insufficient qualification to obtain them. Educational qualifications become subject to inflation.

Clearly the belief of the instigators of the Education Reform Act was that schools were to become like businesses. The successful ones would be cost effective, have a positive image and respond to consumer demand. Their product would be an educated pupil of proven quality, measured by national standards of attainment.


Markets in theory and markets in practice are very different phenomena. Schools selection procedures and economic viability become more important than their educational aspirations. Image becomes more important than substance, schools have to 'sell themselves'. Educational resources are used for promotional campaigns. If education is a business, then we know what happens to less 'successful' products and underused and uneconomic factories.


Diversity has rapidly become not diversity of choice but diversity by selection. A 'top' school can only stay on top if the product commands demand. Diversity implies a choice from a range of different but equal educational providers, but in effect it has simply meant an increasing emphasis on selection.


Not all of us have the same range or possibility of choice. The inability of all to exercise choice inevitably produces inequality. Since money now follows pupils, popular schools gain more money. Such schools can therefore be more selective about which pupils they will accept. The initial idea of choice becomes inverted, no longer do parents choose schools, schools now choose pupils. And, when given the choice, successful schools will select those pupils who are most likely to achieve academic success and so further enhance the reputation of the schools and attract more pupils and more resources. But what about those schools faced by the reverse spiral of fewer pupils, fewer resources, worse results?

In fact, choice has turned out to be illusory for a large minority of people. Judd (1997) suggests that between 25-50% of parents do not get their children into their choice of school.


There are two simple reasons for this:

  1. Schools cannot simply expand to meet demand (not such a pure market then!)
  2. Popular schools, since they cannot expand, become increasingly selective.

The capacity to exercise choice is effectively limited by social class. The middle class choice is increased by material factors such as transport and work commitments, and income. There are cultural differences, which relate to aspirations and career expectations, and knowledge of the educational system.

In a parentocracy; resources + preferences = choice (Fulcher & Scott, 1999).

National testing

National testing enabled the construction of league tables that allowed the comparison of schools' performances.