Thirty years on - did the schools "market" deliver?

Fiona Millar's picture

This year marks a significant anniversary in the history of education policy in this country.

 Thirty years ago this summer the Great Education Reform Bill, known as GERBIL to civil servants in the Department for Education at the time, passed into law

 It was a huge reforming piece of legislation, which brought in the idea of a national curriculum, parent choice and competition as well as limited diversity in the form of City Technology Colleges and grant-maintained schools.

 Its intention was on the one hand to standardise English education - it was thought that therewas too much variation in curriculum and school quality – while also ushering in a market-style approach to schooling. 

 This would, so the theory went, ensure that popular successful schools expanded, while weaker institutions either closed or were forced to improve.

 In the years that followed the “tools” of that market, in the form of Ofsted inspections, performance measures and league tables, were introduced in order to help parents choose schools. 

 Even though 1988 might seem like ancient history to many younger teachers, parents and governors, these reforms were crucial in that they paved the way for the environment within which all schools now operate. 

 In spite of numerous other reforms to schools since then, no government has seriously challenged the idea that diversity, choice and competition should underpin our education system.

 But anniversaries always provide an opportunity for reflection and for the last six months I have been researching and writing a short book “The Best for My Child. Did the schools market deliver?”, looking at the genesis of the 1988 reforms, where they have left us, and what we should do next.

 The book starts with a personal story – that of my own children’s primary school (where I first became a governor in 1992) which was one of the first schools to be “named and shamed” by Ofsted. 

 Over the intervening twenty-five years Gospel Oak has become an outstanding school, incidentally without needing to become an academy or detach from our local council along the way.

 But there is no doubt that being publicly accountable through Ofsted, and initially hovering at the bottom of our local authority league tables, was a huge incentive to improve.

 This would suggest that the market policies worked and that more competition and diversity stimulated school improvement. But is that so?

 In many ways schools have got better; more are securely good; most are safe, well functioning environments and it is generally accepted that school leadership and teaching has improved. 

 A much higher proportion of young people stay in education and training today, and are thus educated to a higher qualification level, than was the case in 1988.

 The most recent figures suggest that 66% of young people are in “education destinations” after finishing Key Stage 5 (the 16-19 phase) up from 19% in 1988. Almost 90% are in some wider form of education, employment or training, up from 40% in 1988.

Moreover a clear counter factual scenario exists in Wales. After education policy was devolved in the late 1990s, Welsh education ministers proudly rejected key stage tests and market style performance measures, only to be obliged to introduce its own system of school accountability in the late noughties after it emerged that the performance of Welsh pupils was falling behind.

 But it is still debatable whether “standards” have improved.  I discovered very quickly while researching the book that the lazy assumption (of which I have been guilty) that children are better educated, because more get to the expected level at the end of primary and secondary school, masks a real can of worms.

 Measuring standards over time, between subjects and between types of qualifications is tricky. GCSE examinations, SAT tests and school performance measures have changed so regularly so we are not comparing like with like, which is one reason why the government is now trialing its own standardised reference tests at GCSE level.

 Existing independent standardised tests, of competencies such as spelling and mathematical, concepts carried out by academics at some UK universities over the last 30 years, seem to show that in terms of that children can do and know little has changed.

 Meanwhile we aren’t even really clear about what we mean by standards, which currently only relate to exams and test results rather than any wider interpretation of teaching, learning, behaviour or personal development. 

 These wider characteristics are the subject of Ofsted inspections but often get obscured by simple assessment metrics like Progress 8 and the new primary school test scores.

 And even if we stick to the current benchmarks of success, some schools and some parts of the country still appear to struggle. These are currently earmarked as the government’s latest “Opportunity Areas” , places where attainment, social mobility and progression to work and university appear to have stalled.

 It is also debatable whether parents did in fact get more “choice”. On the whole popular schools haven’t expanded to meet demand so the school your children get into remains largely dependent on where you live and even then the best parents can hope for is to express a preference for a few schools.

 Too many schools are also still allowed to select their pupils, either overtly using tests like the 11 plus, or covertly with tests of faith, aptitude, feeder schools, banding or re-drawing of catchment areas. 

 Allied to parent choice and a flourishing private sector in some places,  many schools have become segregated by ethnicity and class and can have far more or fewer poor children than is the norm their local communities. In short, the hierarchy of schools that has always typified the English education system seems destined to continue and may even have been exacerbated by choice and competition.

 This is turn can have an impact on school performance – schools with largely aspirant pupils who are high performing on entry can experience a virtuous cycle of success and popularity while those with more challenging intakes can find life difficult in the high stakes environment created by the market.

 Pressure to “perform” has also inevitably lead to more and more ingenious ways of gaming the market, from an excessive focus on certain groups of students, to use of GCSE equivalent qualifications, to dodgy admissions practices and the latest troubling practice of “off rolling”, which involves various type of illegal exclusions to lose the pupils most likely to drag down test and exam results.

 Meanwhile perhaps the most dramatic escalation of the ideas set in train by the then Secretary of State Kenneth (now Lord) Baker in 1988 was the massive expansion of academy schools by Michael Gove after 2010. Though it is  worth noting that Lord Baker, who was dismissive of the Gove reforms when I interviewed him, told me he would "never have gone that far".

 In another interview for the book, Gove’s former adviser Sam Freedman suggested that the drive for more diversity aimed at a slow creation of academy chains run by existing successful schools. 

 The incoming coalition government didn’t anticipate the rush to convert that the financial incentives that the 2010 academies act created, he told me, and with hindsight could have managed this differently.

 Both he and the academic Professor Simon Burgess, who has been studying the issue of school admissions and composition for 15 years, coincidentally used an identical expression to describe the resulting situation – "the Wild West".  

 Thousands of academies now exist in a fragmented landscape with no clear local oversight as schools are juggled between local authorities and academy chains under the supervision of Regional Schools Commissioners, the Department for Education and the Education and Skills Funding Agency.

 This scenario makes it much easier for schools to use unethical practices to succeed and harder for central government, to whom academies are contracted, to monitor performance and financial management.

 As a result, there have been a string of financial scandals such as at the Kings Science Academywhere staff members were found guilty of defrauding the government.

 And other questionable financial practices in chains like the Durand Academy Trust where the founder Sir Greg Martin devised a complex web of companies and related party transactions ( contracts being awarded to other people or organisations with links to the school) which ensured that he earned over £400,000 a year. The DAT funding agreement with the DFE was terminated last year

 The rapid expansion in diversity has also lead to an unappealing new phenomenon, the orphan school, that no one wants. As the reality of trying to turn around struggling institutions in an unforgiving financial climate bites, many chains are unwilling to take on the most challenging, leaving them hovering in a no man’s land between multi academy trusts, their local authorities and the DFE with whom all academy contracts are signed.

 Maybe unsurprisingly, detailed research into academy performance carried out by organisations like the Education Policy Institute show clearly that there is little difference in outcomes between academies and maintained schools.

 But perhaps the greatest scandal is that after 30 years of the market, we no longer have enough teachers for the number of children entering the school system in the next ten years.

 Michael Gove’s market style reforms to teacher education have failed. Not enough candidates are entering the profession and too many are leaving, often disillusioned with the workload and school culture engendered by the competitive nature of the market.

 So where should we go from here? It seems very unlikely that any government in the near future will go back on the idea that parents should have choice, or that schools should be accountable.

 So that means trying to mitigate the worst effects of the market approach. This, I would suggest, demands a new look at school admissions – ruling out all forms of selection and requiring all schools in a given area to work together to agree common admissions criteria and to balance school intakes as far as possible.

 Then we need a new much tougher, coherent middle tier to hold all schools to account in a local area in the same way, manage admissions with a new tougher admissions Code of Practice, and broker partnerships where schools need support and collaboration.

 Professor Becky Allen, whose work at the data analytics organisation Education Datalab, has done much to shine a light on how school accountability measures impact on the children they are supposed to help, told me “Human relationships and a strong regulatory middle tier work together to promote ethnical leadership."

 The current model of diverse academy chains working across different parts of the country appears to be working sub-optimally;  all academy and maintained schools should be within the clear remit of a local or regional education body, put on an equal legal footing, possibly with the academy funding agreements re-assigned to that authority.

 Finally we need to take the heat out of school accountability and to find a broader more generous definition of success than the ability to pass a relatively narrow range of tests and exams which generally exclude the sort of vocational and technical qualifications and skills the country will clearly need after Brexit.

 Ofsted has started making noises about balancing the breadth of a school’s curriculum against  test and exam data. The Headteachers’ Roundtable group has suggested area wide accountability so all schools in an area would take responsibility for all the children in that area, reducing the incentives for individual schools to manipulate their intakes and exclude some pupils.

 And there are other ideas that have been suggested in the past such as a “report card” or websites where where parents could see a much wider range of indicators than straightforward exam result. Well-being, extracurricular activities, parent and staff satisfaction for example. 

 I would even go further and encourage Ofsted to withhold top grades from schools that aren’t inclusive or representative of their local community especially with regard to pupils eligibility for Free School Meals, with SEND or using local IDACI (Income Deprivation Affecting Children Index)indicators.

 The vicious circle of schools struggling in league tables, being demonised by national inspections and then failing to recruit and retain good staff (who understandably might just find life easier in a less challenging environment) is blighting many of the areas in which pupils persistently underperform their peers in other parts of the country.

 Blackpool head teacher Stephen Tierney, who blogs under the name Leading Learner, summed the last 30 years up succinctly in the book: “The market is fine for a shop, but not good for a school or a hospital or public services more generally, where all need to be good.”

 One of the rallying cries that accompanied the onset of the market driven policies was that parents should do the “best for their children”. That is an understandable instinct, but the job of government is to do the best for all children.

 Thirty years on from the 1988 Act,  we can acknowledge that an element of competition and more accountability may have helped schools to improve in some ways, but there has been a  cost. We are still not doing the best for all children and, if we are to rectify that in the next 30 years, we need to understand why that is.








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James Coombs's picture
Thu, 28/06/2018 - 13:08

Right on cue, this was followed by the 1989 Greenwich ruling which established that those living spitting distance from John Bull Primary School couldn't be excluded on the grounds of living the wrong side of an imaginary line.  This legitimised the grammars and faith schools' "dodgy practices" of selecting pupils from miles away to boost prior attainment.  Combine that with a myopic mainstream media unable to look beyond raw GCSE results, which is unsurprisingly predominantly a product of prior attainment, and the outcome is hardly surprising. 

Roger Titcombe's picture
Sat, 30/06/2018 - 18:55

This is an enormously perceptive and important article, written by someone who I suspect was once much more supportive of the marketisation philosophy than she is now.

Fiona is so right to question the 'performance indicators' trotted out by this and previous Labour governments to make the claim that educational standards have been rising. I argue in my book, 'Learning Matters' that they have not and that much of the damage has been and continues to be done in 'good' and 'outstanding' schools.

I have consistently argued that the pursuit of the performance indicators that drive marketisation is actually making our school students dimmer while exam results and the OfSTED judgements based on them continue to rise. Some of the evidence for this can be found here.

More emerges from the 'attainment gap' analysis that John Mountford and I are currently researching. See

Fiona Millar's picture
Thu, 05/07/2018 - 16:51

To be honest I am not sure my views on the market have changed that much. My own experience at my children's primary school in the 1990s taught me that more accountability and openness about schools that were failing their pupils was positive overall. Being damned by Ofsted and at the bottom of the league tables was a powerful incentive to improve a school that was very poorly led with devastating consequences for the most disadvantaged pupils.

The problem is with the way the performance measures are designed, the disastrous, rapid expansion of diversity in the form of academy schools , with no suitable local oversight, and the freedom our schools have to pick and choose the pupils they teach.

Other countries permit a degree of parent choice but have more equitable outcomes. I live in hope.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Sun, 01/07/2018 - 13:24

This timely Guardian article provides yet more support to Fiona's arguments and observations.

The artificial market in schools was deliberately created to drive competition between them. This is a consequence of a 'neo-liberal' ideological belief supported by the Labour Party under Blair and which under Corbyn has still not been effectively challenged. Fiona Millar expresses this very clearly here.

"This would, so the theory went, ensure that popular successful schools expanded, while weaker institutions either closed or were forced to improve. In the years that followed the “tools” of that market, in the form of Ofsted inspections, performance measures and league tables, were introduced in order to help parents choose schools. These reforms were crucial in that they paved the way for the environment within which all schools now operate. In spite of numerous other reforms to schools since then, no government has seriously challenged the idea that diversity, choice and competition should underpin our education system."

The roots of the ideology sprang from the US, as explained here.

The study reported in the Guardian states that "it cannot say conclusively why better-performing and improving schools have admitted fewer poorer students." However, 'cannot say' really means, 'does not want to say' because the reason is and always has been obvious.

The market requires performance indicators to drive it. These have been various arbitrary combinations of the aggregated attainment of pupils through KS2 SATs (primary) and GCSE (secondary), on the assumption that the large variations in these measures to be found between schools reflect the effectiveness of the education provided. This 'common sense' assumption has long been known to be false. By far the greatest factor in the variation of school attainment is the mean cognitive ability of admission intakes. School heads have always known that this is closely mapped by the relative affluence of postcodes, as is confirmed by mountains of Cognitive Ability Test (CATs) data going back decades.

So the formula for school success has always been to attract children from wealthy postcodes and deter those from poorer ones. This needs power over admission policies that Academies, Free Schools and many faith schools have been given, but which LA schools do not have, hence the incentive to become one of these sorts of schools.

Thus has the 'attainment gap' been created. The 'killer fact' revealed by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) is that OfSTED 'good' and 'outstanding' schools are no more effective than 'inadequate' schools in closing the gap between the Free School Meals children they can't avoid admitting and their more able (and wealthier) peers.

This is all explained with the supporting evidence here.

John Mountford's picture
Wed, 04/07/2018 - 21:18

Like you Roger, I agree with so much of what Fiona writes. It deserves to be widely read and discussed. I even re-posted it on Nancy Bailey's site in the US. But what comment here, apart from yours??

You are so on the button about the report. It isn't that it cannot say why the system is loaded against the interests of poorer pupils. It 'does not want to say, because the reason is and always has been obvious.' The evidence we are uncovering about the systematic inflation of KS2 SATs will be your justification for daring to mention cognitive ability here.

In the meantime, I fear that this network is not what it used to be, hence the virtual neglect of Fiona's article. Were it not for Janet Downs' frequent insightful contributions and those of you and a few others, this site might as well fold. I recall when I fist discovered it many years ago, it was a vibrant source of of lively debate. Now it is something of a wasteland of neglected information deserving of greater support.

Fiona Millar's picture
Thu, 05/07/2018 - 17:12

I am sorry you feel that way about the site John. When we started LSN the context was very different; we had a hyperactive Secretary of State, highly contentious policies and a great deal of interest in the politics of education at a local and national level. Sadly now, even though the issues are no less important, it appears to be a dead topic at Westminster with little interesting or new thinking from any of the main parties. Brexit also dominates the news agenda which means what little education news there is gets scant media attention. Even I struggle to find things to write about. Hopefully we will  still be here if any of that changes!

John Mountford's picture
Thu, 05/07/2018 - 18:12

I was quite sorrowful myself, Fiona, but had to make my views known, hopefully in a dignified manner. I take part of what you say about the 'then and now'. However, I can't leave it at that.

Respectfully, I disagree with you on some pretty important points. First, it isn't  just that the issues are no less important, as you point out. In truth, they have never held such importance for us all as they do right now. Secondly, if you are right about education being a 'a dead topic at Westminster' we are in more trouble as a society than even I thought. If you are right then it is time to take steps to remove the governance of education from party politics, as I have been consistently calling for. Any party that has little interest in what is happening in education and is prepared to shut up and listen, deserves to be ditched by the electorate. As for a derth of ideas among the political classes, thank god for that. They, the whole lot, have bled the profession dry with their quick fixes and initiatives designed to attract the headlines, not to mention the unhealthy pressure they have generated in the lives of many of our young people for little meaningful reward.

That brings me finally to the media. It's time , I am sure, to let the youth speak about how the current education regime is affecting them. You could start with my own grandson, who at thirteen already sees the folly of all the incessant testing and the excessive measurement designed for the system, not to directly benefit him and his generation.

You will have spotted how peed off I am about the utter shambles that masquerades as education reform in this country. My remedy would be to promote some slow reflection on what all those who see beyond the emperor's new policies acknowledge. Our young people deserve the dest we can offer and the need to progress towards that has to begin NOW.

Very finally, if all we have is hope, Fiona, as important as that is, it can never be sufficient when the stakes are so high. Please forgive me if I offend you in any way.


Luci Davin's picture
Mon, 09/07/2018 - 20:35

It might help to revitalise this site if it was easier for new users to register and/or log in, and if someone actually responded to requests for lost passwprd help.

Luci Davin's picture
Tue, 10/07/2018 - 03:10

Sorry, after previous experience of trying to register/log in to this site I didn't expect anything I posted to go through. Very glad it has been fixed.

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 14/07/2018 - 08:25

Luci - I'm pleased your comment got past the gremlins in the machine and hope you don't have any future problems.

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