Education Factories: Should Schools Be Treated Like Businesses?

Listener 29 June, 2002

Keywords Education

The chapter on the core education system in my book The Whimpering of the State evaluates the underlying economic model which influenced the education reforms of a decade or so ago. In essence schools were to be treated like businesses. …

… In which case the standard economics argument is that maximum performance would be obtained by putting them into a competitive market environment with principals having the powers of a chief executive with the freedom to manage the inputs of the firm (including the teachers – remember bulk funding?), and the parents having market choice.

This application of the theory of the firm to education involves all sorts of problems. For instance what exactly was the school’s business? Was it a shop selling students aqualifications? Or perhaps like a freezing work it was processing students? But involves a far more complicated transformation of the individual than the slaughter and packaging into standard cuts of meat. I quoted W.B. Yeats’ poem ‘Among Schoolchildren’ in which watching in a classroom he muses ‘O body swayed with music, O brightening glance,/ How can we know the dancer from the dance?’ More prosaically, how can we separate the student being educated from the education process?

When I presented this thesis to teachers, they responded positively because it provided a context in which the reforms they experienced and were experiencing, made some sense. It was almost as if economists had ignored the educationalist’s account of the world and imposed their reality over it. This was evident in the furious responses by educationalist to the 1987 Treasury post-election briefing on education which they argued was ignorant of the educational issues. While many professions were supine to the reforms of the late 1980s and 1990s, the educationalists produced a rich set of critiques. (One curiosity, is that many – but not all – of the most critical scholars later took prestige positions overseas, indicating that they were high quality academics.)

Yet there was a grave weakness to my analysis. Systematic modelling inevitably involves making simplifications. (So does unsystematic theorising, but the assumptions are more obscure, and the streamlining harder to identify.) There is a danger of oversimplifying – rigour to the point of rigor mortis. A model needs to be empirically tested: so does the critique. (Economists have tried to test the theory that schools are businesses with production functions. Unfortunately they rarely allow for differences between students – because the data needed does not exist – so their conclusions are not compelling. Imagine trying to assess the efficiency of freezing works with different throughputs of cattle, deer goats and cows, with a crude output measure such as tonnes of meat.)

So I was delighted to come across When Schools Compete: A Cautionary Tale. The American authors, Edward Fiske (who has been education editor of the New York Times) and Helen Ladd (who is professor of public policy studies sat Duke University), spent five months here in 1998 assiduously examining the outcome of the reforms, including interviewing almost 200 people involved in education and visiting almost 50 schools. Their conclusions are a damning inditement of a market-led education system. Happily there has been some backing down since. (I hasten to add they do not condemn of every change.)

There are also some great stories. The best is about the eight South Auckland schools which were deemed to be under-performing. So the Ministry of Education arranged for their principals to go to a three day retreat under the leadership of a management consultant from a brewery. The consultant had extensively surveyed the schools, and began by telling the principals that they were already capable managers. ‘He would invest in any company [they] were running.’ So the principals spent three days running plotting against the Ministry, which may not have had the same level of competence. It saw the schools were functioning poorly. The theory said that if the management was competent they should function well, so the problem was to improve the management. The fact the principals were proficient suggests that there was something wrong with the theory – with the underlying model.

The book is rich with shrewd and balanced insights into the strengths and weakness of the reforms. Perhaps it says no more than what most teachers and many parents intuit, but it is disappointing that it is not more widely known because it provides evidence and analysis to underpin the intuition. Any teacher who cannot find time to read the book is overworked, and should promptly be given refresher leave to study it.

The book’s final paragraphs have a wider application:

‘The New Zealand experience also suggests the limits of particular ideas and theories … If nothing else the experience with school reform … illustrates there is no panacea in school reform. New Zealand’s experience … demonstrates that reformers in other countries who are tempted to put their faith in simple governance solutions to complex questions of educational quality are likely to find them wanting. It also demonstrates that overreliance on simplistic solutions can cause considerable harm to both individuals and schools …’