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Thursday, September 8, 2016

Neo liberalism and education - where have we seen this before?

I drafted this piece back in May but didn't post it because it was born of frustration and could be perceived as negative.  But looking at it now, I don't think there is anything overtly critical in it.  It is clearly ironic and with a bit of distance I think it shows how policy builds on policy.

Often the problem that you seek to solve requires you to start from somewhere other than where you are now...

The week before last was a big week in education politics.  Or at least it seemed that way from the news media. The government rowed back from the forced academisation of all schools.  And everyone heaved a sigh of relief.

But was there really a change of heart in light of the opposition to the ideas published in the education white paper?  Or did the government simply take the opportunity to accept something that it already knew... That it doesn't have a hope of turning all the schools in the country into academies and furthermore, it doesn't really have the money or the expertise to run them if it did.

This is the continuing problem with policy and practice.  Policy is about big ideas; aspirations for society as a whole but it doesn't sully itself with reality.

The evolution of the 'academy' argument goes (a little) like this:

Lord Andrew Adonis (the Dr Pepper Phase)
  • There are endemically failing secondary schools
  • If we always do what we have always done we will always get what we have always got
  • Central government can't improve them and local authorities can't improve them
  • Let's try something different
  • Inject some enthusiasm, extra cash and freedom and see how they get on

And you know what...  A lot of them got better.  But before it was possible to identify if this was just the Hawthorne Effect, regression to the mean or genuine system improvement along came...

Michael Gove (the Revolutionary Phase)
  • The Labour government 1997-2010 spent more on education than almost all of its predecessors
  • And yet outcomes did not improve in line with this expenditure [1]
  • Why?
  • Because much of the money was wasted on bureaucracy and middle management (the bourgeoisie) and didn't have any impact on the children
  • Wouldn't it make more sense to get rid of the bureaucrats and give control of the money to those who understand what children need ie the headteachers? (the proletariat)

This is the rationale behind the creation of a 'school led system

It has the added benefit of reducing the size and scope of local and national government which is a long standing ambition of right of centre political parties. As well as destroying large urban education authorities who are often politically opposed to Tory government.  

Under Michael Gove the academy model was extended from secondary to primary and from 'failing' schools to all schools. It became a badge of honour to convert. The naughty chair still existed for forced academy status.

Lord Nash (the Neo Liberal Phase - but with echoes of Stalinism) 
  • The revolution has happened
  • But there's still no evidence that becoming an academy actually improves outcomes for children 
  • What's holding us back?
  • Governance. Governors (kulaks) always impeded local authority attempts to school improvement and are still doing so in MATs where governors have just moved over
  • The 'Freedom' allowed to academies shouldn't include the freedom to resist the DfE
  • If we push all schools to academy status the entire system will fragment allowing market forces to do their work (those that are good will grow those that are not will fail)
  • If only we could also introduce robust corporate governance then under performance would have nowhere to hide
  • Instead of having governing bodies in every school, lets have a higher skilled board of trustees for every 10 schools or so.  

And so in three steps we have come from, "Let's do something different, what's the worst that could happen?" Via, "Blow the whole thing up and start again, what could possibly go wrong?" To, "You are all free but some are more free than others.[2]"
[1] Not sure the evidence bears this out but it was part of the argument
[2] “A  paradox of neoliberalism is that universal competition relies upon universal quantification and comparison. The result is that workers, job-seekers and public services of every kind are subject to a pettifogging, stifling regime of assessment and monitoring, designed to identify the winners and punish the losers. The doctrine that Von Mises proposed would free us from the bureaucratic nightmare of central planning has instead created one.”  George Monbiot

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