Competition in Education: No Thanks

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.


5 thoughts on “Competition in Education: No Thanks

  1. Ian Lynch

    Probably it is at least as much about accountability as it is competition. Competition is a consequence of a system referenced to population performance. Mainly things are done like that because it is a lot less expensive to do it that way. If we accept that some sort of accountability is necessary then achieving that is going to have some of the consequences we see, In the end that is a political decision and mostly the mainstream parties have policies for accountability in the public sector.

    1. chemistrypoet Post author

      I agree that accountability in a state system is necessary, and that, therefore, there has to be standards or benchmarks to compare against. But, this doesn’t mean that competition or high stakes inspections are inevitable, in my opinion. We want the best we can achieve with the resources we have available. So, discern what the best consists of, and then work out how to implement that in a collaborative and encouraging way. Bad practice and poor teachers can be addressed in a local context without the humiliation that comes from high stakes inspections. Respect is the oil of civilisation.

  2. @AndyHampton

    The problem stems from seeing education as parallel to business. In business the weak company shuts because it fails to compete effectively. The consequence is that the owner loses money’s nd the workers are recycled into other jobs. In education the weaker schools are condemned and the pupils and staff have work in conditions of low morale and low self esteem. They feel they are at ‘the worst school’ and of course then teacher seek to leave, patents seek to send their children anywhere but there etc. In a nutshell competition creates losers and that is just mad!

    1. ingotian

      In business, the weak company is often taken over by a stronger one. It’s more likely start ups that had failed to establish any value that simply go out of business. The problem in schools is that there is disagreement on the outputs that matter, and the contexts are often limited in scope for change. That skews the competition so that in a free market no-one would want take on the most difficult context with little prospect of changing it. The alternative to competition is to have someone making a judgement about whether within a particular context, the outcomes are reasonable. For accountability that would have to be an independent agency. Sounds a bit like OFSTED to me. You could have competition with disproportionate funding to those in the most difficult contexts. That happens to an extent but arguably not to the degree where it is really enough to turn the tables.

  3. chemistrypoet Post author

    My view is that the whole market/competition approach doesn’t work in a state education context. Analogies and comparisons with business/industry are not helpful, and related implemented policy yield negative unintended consequences that far outweigh any short term gains.


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