From the SMF Archive: Free Schools debated…in 1993

The views of the Public Accounts Committee on free schools are getting press coverage today. So I’ve picked out a schools pamphlet from the SMF archive for this blog entitled Schools and the State. It’s a remarkably prescient one, beautifully and clearly written, which won’t surprise you when I reveal the name of the author.

Published in 1993, here are the principles it sets out:

  • Schools should run themselves as autonomous institutions with the state having a role only in licensing them
  • Licensed schools should be paid broadly on the basis of the numbers of students they attract
  • Parents should be able to send their children to any school they like
  • Local education authorities should shed their responsibility for managing schools
  • Incentives should be built into the system for high-performing schools to expand of their own volition, and for new providers (including those that plan to make a profit) to enter

The author you might think has to be Michael Gove. In fact it’s Evan Davis, now of the BBC. What he describes, as he unabashedly says in the introduction, is a vision for education based on the view that “certain market mechanisms can properly be applied to the provision of public and social services”. He doesn’t even take it for granted that the state should pay for all primary and secondary education, this is a design principle that he establishes by argument from economic theory and leaves open the possibility that parents could ‘top up’ from their own resources.

Some of the news coverage today is about how free schools are being created in areas where there is already sufficient supply of school places. Davis considers this issue and again he follows the market logic, i.e. it’s almost impossible to create effective competition among schools if there isn’t choice for parents and it’s almost impossible for there to be effective choice unless there is more supply than demand. That seems hard to fault as an argument on its own terms, right?

But then the real reason why free schools and other elements of this Government’s schools reforms are controversial is revealed, more inadvertently, in the pamphlet as well. There is a very important sense in which reading Davis’ pamphlet today isn’t going back to the future at all. He writes, “Since all of Britain’s political parties now accept the role of markets in public provision, the arguments and prescriptions presented here should appeal across the political and educational spectrum.” And this is the change, there is no common acceptance now among the political parties of the role of markets in public services. Or rather there are massive variances in it. So almost everyone accepts that schools will be built by private companies but not that they will be run by them. Equally almost everyone accepts that the development of medicines and indeed the sale of them via pharmacies will take place in the private sector, but it is controversial that private companies will take on certain other aspects of healthcare provision.

One reason for this variance in the acceptability of markets between different types of activity is the ‘idea’ of what is public. I use that word quite deliberately, after all there is something ideological in public services as well as functional. One principle that I omitted from my earlier list of Davis’ principles is that he believes “the Government should play a minimal role in dictating the content of the curriculum”. After all, proper market thinking says, why should we assume that Government has any particular expertise in pedagogy? Teachers do, so let’s make them free to do what they think is right.

Intriguingly, on this point even Michael Gove departs from the principles that may be derived from economic theory. He recognises that there is something common or national or ideological, if you like, that is a part of public education. While both Gove and Davis might be touched by social market thinking, Davis is if anything even more rigid in applying it than the now Secretary of State.


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