Competition is no panacea

There is much talk of applying competition between schools as a new panacea. As I have said before, I simply don’t believe there is an undiscovered panacea in education.

My feeling is that if you turn learning in to a commodity then you end up with a cheap way of delivering shallow facts in a bland way that lacks suitable challenge and deep learning. I’m sure the customer service for delivery of those facts would be excellent, and the service very cheap, but it entirely misses the point that the best learning is a chaotic, difficult, and often uncomfortable journey, with incredible highs and frustrating challenges. Who would choose this over an easy, bland diet of pre-packaged, pre-digested facts? Would the majority of parents choose the school that challenges them to be a better parent over the school that allows them to abdicate responsibility?

In a reply to Loic Menzies’ excellent article on competition between schools, Jacob Kestner asserts that supermarkets would be worse and less efficient if they had collaborated, and therefore schools should follow the supermarket/competitive model. I think Loic’s response deals with a number of flaws in this argument very well, but he only briefly mentions the motives of ‘consumers’ in education, and the ability of competition and choice to foster quality.

Competition between supermarkets has created cheap, plentiful food with an abundance of choice. It has not created talented cooks. Quite possibly the opposite, in fact. Customers are, more often than not, choosing the easy route to eating – pre-prepared, pre-packaged meals. Convenience and ease-of-consumption generally rules over quality, and in many cases these choices are leading to long-term damage to those same consumers, and society as a whole.

The fundamental flaw with ‘competition’ logic is that many people will choose the option that is easy, that is pleasant, but not necessarily the option that is good for them in the long run. In education we see the effect of competition in the examination system. It is not the market forces that have been responsible for trying to retain quality of assessments – quite the opposite. The popular exams tend to be the more shallow, comfortable options rather than the ones that increase the challenge and force teachers to work harder. It goes further than the tests themselves – exam boards create recipe-book text books that sometimes de-skill the teachers who end up teaching to the test in a boring way, in response to demand from schools for ways to improve their results.

Competition is clearly one lever for improvement in a system. It works very well to ensure value for money. It works pretty well to ensure that consumers get treated well when something goes wrong – they get a pleasant experience, and a comforting one. Can we rely on this lever by itself?

The school that ‘transforms’ itself by playing the system to ensure that its examination statistics are as high as possible clearly wins the parents’ vote, over the school that takes the longer view and works on teaching and learning quality solidly to slowly drive up standards.

The school that enforces mainly rote-learning, students sat in rows, and ignores new research about learning (i.e. makes students learn the way their parents did)  may be much more understandable for parents who prefer it over one where subjects are taught in non-traditional ways that force them to challenge their own preconceptions about what makes a good education. In fact this is the big problem that politicians and journalists have – those that consider themselves intelligent and successful decide that the solution is to benevolently impose their same life-experiences on everyone else, regardless of suitability.

I’m not saying competition has no part in education. I support schools being freed up to make their own choices about where they buy services and supplies – where commercial approaches are much more proven. Also, if the other levers of self-evaluation, inspection, exam indicators all fail then we need to ensure parents can, as a very last resort, consider moving away from an area in order to avoid a school. However, clearly this advantages those with the means to do so, and massively disadvantages those who are not able to move, or not willing to prioritise their children’s learning. We cannot use this as the lever of first choice, or even second or third choice.

Supermarkets become more efficient because inefficient ones can slowly die and go out of business. We can’t afford for schools to do the same. We can’t guarantee that parents will pick the best choice for the long-term, or that a lever that has increased efficiency in selling food produce will drive up standards in learning.

I welcome your thoughts.

3 Replies to “Competition is no panacea”

  1. Competing may take many forms; it is not wise to bring them all under a single slogan umbrella and then make away with. Perhaps, the present system of education is most reminiscent of the supermarket industry and, for this reason, the consumer analogy in competition is the most obvious. Change the system and then think of how to compete and what for.

  2. I think the place where competition is most anomalous is in Health Care. I don’t want a choice of hospital I just want to know that my local provision is good enough. And manyeople the same way about schools. League tables for schools have done untold damage to education because it has trained the public to perceive education as a service industry. For the fact. That there is competition between schools. For pupil recruitment is a given. It is there and you have to do your best as a school to attract the next cohort. What you don’t need is the government trying to heighten that competition b introducing crass and idiotic measures that distort what is actually happening. Parents should be allowed to make up their own minds by visiting schools, talking-to teachers, heads and pupils.

  3. Well, I would question two of your assumptions.

    1) Supermarkets do not just deliver a cheap, bland product with good customer service. The market has incredible diversity, even within firms themselves. Tesco do a value range and a ‘finest’ range. Waitrose offer a niche service with fantastic quality produce, often cheaper than supposedly better value rivals. Aldi and Lidl maximize budgets for those that need to. Consumers are spoilt for choice and mix between three or four supermarkets if they so wish. In recent years we have seen innovations such as internet shopping, loyalty cards, price matching, local express stores etc etc. I think it’s a little unfair to presume a competitive market guarantees a race to the bottom, when in fact the reason the supermarket model was chosen for comparison (probably) was because of the phenomenal range in products available to the average consumer.

    2) I don’t know what the facts are regarding people cooking for themselves (had a quick look, but not finding anything). But I would guess the standard of British cooking has gone up a lot in recent years. Go to an average pub now and you will no longer be served a microwave burger and chips, they’re all serving risottos now. Parts of Britain have gone foodie, I can’t imagine being able to find a dozen types of olive oil in a supermarket 15 years ago, or a dozen types of italian cold meats. Of course, many people will still choose to live off crisps, so competition doesn’t help them. But everyone else gets easy access to sweet potatoes which they can bake instead. So competition hasn’t helped everyone, but it has allowed those who want to live differently to help themselves. I don’t believe the obesity crisis would be any better if supermarkets weren’t so competitive.

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