A dated management dogma drives Michael Gove’s education reforms, not evidence of what works
With the demise of the “big society”, the coalition’s claims to be anything more than an unimaginative deficit-cutter are in tatters – except in education, where it has been extraordinarily radical. Last year saw, among other things, plans to impose performance-related pay on teachers, the development of the EBacc exam, and the introduction of £9,000 university tuition fees.
What lies behind this hyperactivity? Critics accuse the government of softening up the sector for privatisation. But the education secretary, Michael Gove, and the universities minister, David Willetts, insist that ensuring accountability for taxpayers’ money and driving up academic standards are their goals. Gove’s own fogeyish style completes the picture of the old-fashioned, no-nonsense grammar school headmaster. But the government is not simply stuck in 1950s “3Rism”, nor is it planning wholesale privatisation (yet). Rather, it is still stubbornly pursuing a discredited 1980s ideology of quasi-markets, even though 30 years of experience shows that far from improving quality, it is destroying it.
At the root of the reforms is a doctrine that, though unfamiliar to most outside thinktanks, still dominates policy circles: “new public management“. According to this view, the best way to ensure high standards and accountability in public services is to force them to mimic the market. Old centralised systems were inflexible and captured by selfish “producer interests” – teachers and academics; schools and universities therefore have to be made more “competitive”, by taking power from professionals and giving it to “entrepreneurial” managers who will be more responsive to “consumers’ demands, be they parents, students, or taxpayers”.
The problem, of course, is that education and research are not straightforward consumer services. Unlike a haircut, their quality is not simply an issue of personal taste, and the consequences for the individual and broader society will not grow out in six weeks. The new public managers accept this up to a point, and their solution is to insist on rule by league table. Children’s tests, student satisfaction surveys and a five- to six-yearly exam of the nation’s academics (the “research excellence framework” – REF) seek to capture the quality of education or research, and turn it into numbers. These are then published and managers strive to move up the tables, theoretically by improving quality.
Researchers have been criticising new public management for many years. For rather than improving standards, league tables distort what they are supposed to be measuring, and inevitably lead to the gaming of the system. Teachers and academics are, of course, blamed for this, but they are simply responding rationally to government-imposed incentives. The ministerial response is to give managers even more power (for instance through performance-related pay), and to impose new, more restrictive targets, which produce another round of distortions.
Undergraduate education has been a particular victim of these policies. Since the 1980s, research assessment league tables and cuts in teaching funding have distorted incentives for universities, which have neglected teaching to concentrate on research. New league tables, indicating student hours, are now supposed to solve this problem, reinforced by the £9,000 pa fee. The most likely outcome, however, will not be better quality teaching, but yet more gaming of the system, as students are given more, but less useful, “contact”, in larger classes, taught by a new proletariat of non-tenured staff. Schools have endured similarly chaotic policies. League tables have encouraged teachers to steer children away from subjects seen as “difficult”, and Gove’s response has been to use a new set of targets – the EBacc – to force teachers to focus on five “core” subjects. We can already predict the next row, when it becomes clear that schools are neglecting all the subjects outside the core five, and a new set of targets has to be decreed.
But even more serious than this chaotic irrationality is the tendency of targets to destroy the quality they are supposed to ensure. The REF, with its demand for a certain number of “outputs” every five years, has radically altered the landscape of research as academics, at least in the humanities, opt for safe, unambitious projects. This makes it much more likely that the important, path-breaking work will come from the research universities of the United States, where academics have more autonomy.
The disastrous consequences of this regime in schools are also very clear. British school students are the most tested in the industrialised world, and league tables force teachers to “teach to the test”, demoralising the profession and demotivating students.
In recent years, criticisms of Britain’s test-obsessed education system have become difficult to ignore. In 2010 the OECD argued that “high-stakes tests” were producing “perverse incentives”, and pointed out that “despite sharply rising school spending per pupil during the last 10 years, improvements in schooling outcomes have been limited”. The CBI has gone even further, and described British schools as grim “exam factories”.
As international comparisons show, it is not pseudo-markets and targets that work, but their opposite: raising the status of professionals and then trusting them to improve standards. Finland has the highest levels of educational attainment in the world, but it makes very little use of external testing or school inspections. Similarly, the most successful research university system, America’s, is one which prizes research freedom.
In both cases, these professionals impose very strict standards on themselves. All Finnish teachers are required to hold masters degrees, and only one in four applicants is accepted. Meanwhile American research universities enforce notoriously tough tenure conditions.
So why do ministers, who claim to be so obsessed with international competition, ignore all this evidence? The answer lies in ideology: they are products of the late 1970s and 1980s, when neoliberalism appeared fresh and exciting; Gove is less Goodbye Mr Chips and more hello “Tory Boy”. However, much of our elite, left and right, is still enchanted by this dated dogma, and needs to appreciate how weirdly dysfunctional British education looks when compared with other systems. We need more than a change of government. We need an intellectual revolution.