Market Reform of Education: My Letter to Gabriel H Sahlgren

I read your article (Leave Schools Alone to Judge the Best in Show) in the most recent TES (20.09.13) with great interest. I have written and re-written my email to you because I had to remove lots of spittle-flecked ranting in an attempt to engage with your underlying philosophy. My main question I suppose is: what convinces you that the market – an entity that seeks profit above all else – would be the best model on which to base a national education system? What I have written here is not an academic, properly sourced essay.
As you will see I have tried to point out that there are other ways of improving the education system (if indeed it needs to be improved) that have nothing to do with making education into a market. You must understand that I read books with titles like ‘Hidden Privatisation in Public Education’, ‘Education in a Post Welfare Society’, ‘The Global assault on Teaching, Teachers and Their Unions’ and so on.  So for me an organisation like the Centre for the Market Reform of Education is, if not sinister, then certainly unwholesome!
According to your article ‘flexibility’ is not as prevalent within the teaching profession as it might be and training and experience really count for practically nothing. It’s a stunning opening considering the target audience. Your highly contentious conclusion that training and experience count for nothing has, you tell us, ‘profound implications’ for teacher’s pay and conditions: having disregarded the real value and worth of the entire teaching profession in a few sentences it is then simple enough for you to suggest that teachers do not really need any kind of ongoing job security. But it’s also true, wouldn’t you agree, that teacher’s nationally agreed pay and conditions have ‘profound implications’ for the future profitability of schools too? After all how on earth is anyone going to make any money out of education (worth many billions globally of course) if most of the money goes to teachers? It is this point that lies at the heart of the debate. Associating the apparent worthlessness of training and experience with teacher’s pay and conditions is, for me, ‘Bogus Connection Number One’. I will highlight ‘Bogus Connection Number Two’ later on.
It makes me think of James O’ Shaughnessy eagerly promoting the idea of for-profit companies becoming involved in running academies whilst also himself being the director of Mayforth Consulting (educational support services) who will of course be first in line for some of those profits. He said it was because there are so many academies now that not-for-profit companies and charities won’t be able to cope with it all: always thinking of others it would seem!
With the help of various think tanks, including CMRE presumably, Michael Gove is able to follow the same long term agenda with education as Andrew Lansley and Jeremy Hunt (and others before them) have been following with the NHS. That is:
1) Weaken professional coherence and self-awareness with a constant treadmill of ill thought through changes
2) Work to undermine the public’s confidence in the system
3) Push through privatisation initiatives regardless of financial or human cost
This approach is understandable given the absolute primacy of the market in both the Labour and Conservative mind-set (to put it politely). After all isn’t Nigel Lawson taking an interest in Somalian oil these days and isn’t Jonathan Powell hoping to help himself to some Romanian gold?
I’m sure you are correct to state that there are some low quality teachers out there who are getting away with it, much as, sad to say, there are people in every walk of life who bring little additional value to what they are doing. It’s not clear, though, why headteachers cannot be trusted to see off hopeless teachers and why Ofsted cannot go about its business highlighting low quality schools and insisting on improvement. I also agree that it is daft to have a one-size-fits-all qualification requirement to enter teaching. To use a personal example I know somebody who is an excellent artist, brilliant with children and yet, due to not having a maths GCSE, she cannot become an art teacher. The GCSE is an added hoop to jump through and what’s more it will be of practically no genuine use to her as an art teacher.
I’m not convinced though that removing teacher’s pay and conditions is the way to tackle this. A large proportion of new teachers drop out within three years because it is such a demanding and stressful job. Those who stick at it should be able to rely on some sort of consistent national pay-scale during their career. I suppose this must be a tricky issue for free marketeers everywhere: teaching is a job that doesn’t so easily fit the desired ‘flexibility’ that we are all told is the new ‘norm’ (a norm that is very appealing to employers, perhaps less attractive to employees). Teachers really do carry on for years and years doing the same job. Viewed as a craft this isn’t a problem, in fact it’s the opposite. As a teacher I find it very disheartening that you should place so little value on experience, or at least claim that because there is hardly any ‘evidence’ it is something that can be easily disregarded. I’m also concerned that the sort of changes you argue for are coming from outside the profession. This doesn’t feel at all natural to me (see the Diane Ravitch quote below).
You are keen on ‘incentivising’ teachers to produce better ‘performance’. This I also find distressing, largely I must admit because it is ugly management talk. It is hard to take this angle seriously though because every teacher I’ve ever met has been very motivated to do what’s best for the children in their care. It really is the starting point of being a teacher. It’s depressingly cynical to suggest that, in fact, most teachers are not extremely motivated and if they were ‘incentivised’ (presumably with rewards and bonuses and so on) that they would ‘perform’ better. You must know that teachers put in enormous hours during term time and it is recognised as a very stressful occupation. This is not a group of people that needs to be incentivized. What is needed is an end to relentless government tinkering (see point 1 above). To get rid of national pay and conditions is to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Yes, teachers would like to have more freedom to experiment and actually be teachers – autonomous within a collegiate structure – instead of mere technicians delivering a centrally prescribed curriculum; but no, teachers do not want to see the loosening of government ties meaning the end of any job security (obviously!) You, on the other hand, would like to see such an occurrence because it helps to usher in what I understand are referred to as quasi-markets (i.e. markets where there really isn’t a need for a market except for the fact that loads of what Private Eye would call ‘wonks’ are spending day and night pushing for one…because ultimately it will help public money move into private hands).
The fact that it is not easy to measure a teacher’s ‘effectiveness’ is referred to in the article. It’s an input/output model: input the subject knowledge, skills, training and experience of the teachers and output the knowledge, skills and grades of the students. The problem is that it’s all so hard to measure. The following line from your article must have looked bizarre to the many teachers who read it:
“…some evidence exists that teachers’ subject knowledge does make a difference to their students’ performance.”
Only ‘some’ evidence? Wouldn’t all the children who pass their exams count as ‘evidence’? I can understand that a data-driven mindset could miss this point. It can’t be easy piecing together ‘evidence’ that the whole system needs to be radically overhauled right now. It’s a problem when the evidence isn’t really, incontrovertibly there isn’t it? Over in America with more data to draw on and the same lack of conclusive evidence that ‘Ed reform’ really makes much difference they’ve plugged the gap with films like ‘Waiting for Superman’ to help influence public opinion (see point 2 above).
Of course there is an ongoing effort to move schools towards rigid and mechanical systems of performance management. Professor Stephen Ball does an excellent job of deconstructing these new ‘performativity’ models; I say this because his writing on this subject uncannily captured my exact situation in a school I worked at. The cold, data-driven model of performance management really did, for me in one particular setting, force me to put a lot of time and effort into the management of the spectacle of my work. This grotesque intrusion meant I had less time to work at my job! Management insisted on highly formalised performance management meetings that put the individual staff members on the back foot trying to justify themselves to senior staff who already knew the extent and success of their work because they worked with these teachers every day and they already possessed all the data needed on every child in that school! The point I’m making here is that the dreamed-of highly-measurable performance indicators are a certain type of manager’s idea of perfection but they are neither useful on the ground nor conducive to a mutually supportive collegiate atmosphere that one would expect in any decent school.
I agree with you that teachers should be able to experiment; in fact it might be said that a teacher who has stopped experimenting is no longer a teacher. However I do not understand how you are able to draw the conclusion that “stronger experimentation…requires lax central control.” This for me is ‘Bogus Connection Number Two’ and it can be refuted in a number of ways. For example central government could insist on experimentation, or central government might not take too much interest in exactly how the teaching is carried out in different institutions. I do understand why you chose to draw this conclusion though: it quickly equates something that will appeal to teachers (having the freedom to experiment) with what the CMRE wants to happen to education in this country. How fortunate that most teachers are too busy to take you up on this stuff!
Sadly you didn’t have time in your TES article to consider the shortcomings of de-centralising employment terms and pay to the school level. Perhaps a more balanced TES article will be forthcoming from someone else less directly involved in the direction of the debate itself. I would point out though that you missed a wonderful history-teaching opportunity for all the many thousands of teachers who read the TES: performance-related pay was tried at the end of the nineteenth century in this country, back then referred to as ‘payment by results’. It led to a narrower curriculum, teaching to the test and various different strategies to mess around with statistics. These three shortcomings are already, to some extent, in place in our English education system and would certainly become far worse if what you are suggesting comes into practice. Maybe the reason you have not mentioned this important fact, part of our collective history, is not just because it suits you to keep your readers in the dark but also because your agenda is not to do with what is best for teachers and children.
Some good ideas that really would help to improve schooling for all and do not have anything to do with ushering in a new age of educational profiteering (i.e. not necessarily subscribing to the entirely market-driven outlook of our current era) are:
1. Reduce class-size to twenty maximum
2. Only allow people with 2:1s and Firsts to be teachers; you need to be articulate and capable of critical thought to be a teacher. Insisting on a high level of qualification would go some way to ensuring this. There could be other routes involving years of in-school work at the discretion of head teachers.
3. Anybody at policy level, especially the Education Secretary, should have at least twenty years of experience in education (not as a supplier of services but as a teacher and/or headteacher); as Diane Ravitch points out in her review of Pasi Sahlberg’s excellent ‘Finnish Lessons’:
“The new breed of school reformers consists mainly of Wall Street hedge fund managers, foundation officials, corporate executives, entrepreneurs, and policymakers, but few experienced educators.”
How do we ensure that the state does not give up its role as a guarantor of the public good?

“The hallmark of public schools, often forgotten by charters and private schools, is that their purpose cannot only be the private good of its particular students. It must include the wider public good.”

Deborah Meier

In the case of the ‘Centre for Market Reform of Education’ I think the following quote is also relevant:
“What is built on falsehood is itself false.”

For me somebody like Ken Robinson is at the cutting edge of thinking about education. He’s inspiring because he is concerned with education and children and teachers. Did you notice how the word ‘markets’ did not come into that last sentence? Institutions like the NHS and mass-schooling – as we recognise it today – came about during a period when the whole population had been radicalised by years of war. Today people are more comfortable and less radical than at that extraordinary time. Instead of having policy led by the wishes of the people we have policy led by people like you. I don’t mean this in a rude way. I hope you don’t regard the above correspondence as rude in any way. I did once make the mistake of sending a similar email to somebody with whom I also disagreed heartily. It was taken as an insult. It wasn’t meant to be. It is simply that I would be happier if the reforms you suggest had actually bubbled up from teachers and families. It would feel more real. After all isn’t that what a democracy is supposed to look like?

Yours sincerely etc.


One comment on “Market Reform of Education: My Letter to Gabriel H Sahlgren

  1. Mr Reynolds says:

    Fantastic email with some very important points. I hope that teachers take up arms against this blatent attack on our children’s future.

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