Data driven systems. League tables. Data driven Ofsted inspections. These all have consequences. Politically, the aim is to prime the system for perpetual improvement; to embed a drive to always seek change for the better….driven by the fear of failure. OK, the last of these is the reality, not the design. The result of unintended negative consequences. The overall aim is reasonable. The chosen means is not. Fundamentally, the English education system is now based on the concept of competition. Not just competition, mind, but on the free market competition concept. The theoretical approach appears to be along the lines of the following: improvement is required….free market competition drives improvement, with the weaker, less fit organisations being out competed by the stronger, better organisations.
Consequently, the answer is to introduce competition (via creating a market) throughout the system: different types of schools competing for students, different teachers competing with each other for ‘prizes’ (status, salary increases, not being sacked), students competing for university-enabling grades. This appears to have been the philosophy for the last 15 years at least. How’s that working out? Each failure to deliver the requested improvement has resulted in an attempt to increase the level of competition.
But, honestly, this is not going to work. The overall effect of all of these attempts to ‘bring reality’ into education has actually only served to bring individualism instead (at every level). Competition actually focuses people and organisations to think very narrowly about themselves, and not about each other. So, Schools worry about their ability to attract students and about negative oversight from LA’s/Ofsted, SLT worry about their own jobs if targets are not met, teachers worry about their own jobs if targets aren’t met, and students are shunted about the place as each new perverse change is reacted to. Under these circumstances it is difficult to remember that education, at every level, is a collective endeavour. People need to work together and communicate very effectively, if students are going to get the education that we want (even though we can’t yet agree on what that looks like).
The irony is that market competition doesn’t work the way politicians seem to think it does. True, organisations often compete with one another for work in the market place. However, those individual organisations will not flourish if there is a culture of individualism within them. Everyone in the organisation needs to work for the common, overall purpose of the organisation if there is to be a chance of success. Indeed, often different organisations need to partner with other organisations to successfully deliver what a client needs. Education at the National level is one big, common endeavour. It’s not a zero sum game.
Time for a change. Let’s drive improvement, but let’s do it by mutual encouragement. Let’s not do it through competition and fear (that hasn’t delivered). And, by the way….accountability Ofsted-style is part of the problem, not part of the solution….because it is embedded in the competition/individualism approach.