Education – A Contest of Ideologies

Public education is a disputed area of public policy. There are growing concerns, fuelled by evidence of the performance of students by jurisdiction on international standardized tests, that students are not performing as well as they could and that the design of our education system is not “fit for purpose” in the twenty first century.

At the heart of this policy debate is a tension between two forces: (a) a focus on market-based solutions where competition, performance targets, and teachers being compensated against outcome measures are seen as the only way to improve the performance of the system; and (b) a focus on equity, where investment is needed to enable all learners, whatever their background and social status, to have an equal chance of positive learning outcomes (not just opportunities). The first of these choices enables privatization or the use of social enterprise mechanisms and the second requires major investment of public resources to equalize outcomes for all learners. The policy debate is thus about ideology (neo-conservatism versus a more liberal/socialist ideology) and money.

England is pursuing the neo-conservative ideology with a vengeance. English schools are largely now in the hands of social enterprise organizations, many of whom hope to be “for profit” after an election, in 2015, if the Conservative Party secures an overall majority. Teachers in social enterprise schools do not need to be qualified as such and Head Teachers (Principals in the US and Canada) are free to organize their schools in any way that their board of management supports, provided they are seeking to achieve nationally agreed curriculum outcomes. Such schools replace schools which were largely publicly funded (Church schools and private schools being the exception) and managed by Local Education Authorities (LEAs). There is no compelling evidence to support the shift from public to social enterprise.

We will see how this debate unfolds. Many engaged in the policy debate are not optimistic about the outcome of these experiments. But time will tell as will evidence. So far, the evidence suggests that those jurisdictions, with a greater focus on equity, outperform those who seek to use market mechanisms – the evidence comes from OECD’s analysis of the available international standard test data. Not that evidence guides many policy makers. Equity is a tougher and more expensive route for governments to pursue, particularly since it means empowering and resourcing Head Teachers / Principals and their professional staff to make decisions “nearest to the learner” which are intended to benefit the learner and, by doing so, society. As we approach Education Week (May 5-9th, 2014) we should engage in understanding these two different approaches to the design of education systems. It matters, especially if we want to run a great school for all students, not just some.

By Stephen Murgatroyd -