Monday, 24 September 2012

It's not about the ologies

One of the core tenets of Thatcherism was that competition is inherently a good thing, because competitive markets drive costs down and efficiency up.  That was the underlying argument for the marketisation of the health service, for instance – and of course the examination boards.

In the latter case the expectation was that instead of each examination board having a monopoly within its own geographical area as was previously the case, they would compete for ‘customers’ (or ‘schools’, as they are more usually known).  It was always understood that the probable result would be fewer boards each having more customers; but the aim was that the overall cost would be less.
I’m not in a position to state definitively whether it worked; but I suspect that it did - in that narrow economic sense at least.  There are two problems though.
The first is that whilst the purists regard the way in which costs are reduced and efficiency increased as irrelevant as long as it actually happens, it is far from being irrelevant in terms of its other effects.
And the second – as could and should have easily been foreseen – is that marketplace competition doesn’t operate solely on price.  Once they’ve done all they can to reduce costs, competing organisations start looking for other differentiating factors.
In the case of the examination boards, the obvious differentiating factor was always going to be pass rates.  When the schools are being judged on league tables of exam results, then choosing the exam board most likely to help them climb the rankings becomes more important then the cost comparison.
At first sight, the surprise is not so much that that system is now unravelling, but that it’s taken so long to reach that point.  But if we consider the motivations of all the different stakeholders, it’s no surprise at all.
Governments, of all parties, want to demonstrate that their policies are working.  What better way to do that than regular increases in pass rates?
Schools want to demonstrate that they are improving their performance and climbing the league tables.  What better way to do that than regular increases in pass rates?
The examination boards want to grow their ‘business’ and attract more ‘customers’.  What better way to do that than regular increases in pass rates?
Pupils, of course, always wanted to get the best results possible, and their parents (otherwise known as ‘voters’) want the same thing as well.  What better way to demonstrate that than regular increases in pass rates?
‘Teaching to the exams’ is nothing particularly new, but all the incentives have been for schools to do more of it.
Effectively, there’s been a collusion by consensus in which all of those stakeholders’ aspirations have apparently been met, with no stakeholder having any real incentive to ask too loudly the difficult questions about whether the inexorable rise in results actually reflected any real underlying improvement in knowledge and skill.
In principle, it is surely right - indeed overdue - for the UK Education Minister to challenge this process.  And recognising what he called the ‘malign’ impact of Thatcher’s reforms is equally overdue.  But changing the rules part way through an examination cycle was a spectacularly cackhanded way of trying to address the issue, and incredibly unjust on those pupils in England who don’t have a Welsh Government to reverse the decision.
It now looks inevitable that Wales and England will be taking different examination routes in future.  Doing that in a rush as a result of a spat doesn’t seem the right basis for such a major decision, but we are, as they say, where we are.
What I hope will not get lost – but greatly fear will indeed get lost – in this debate is more detailed consideration of that issue about ‘teaching to the exams’.  There still seems to be far too much emphasis being placed on the rigour of the exams, and far too little on whether and to what extent examination results tell us very much about the knowledge and skills of the examinees. 
And in so far as employers and others are complaining about the output of the education system, it is surely about knowledge and skills, not the number of passes in ologies.

8 comments:

Cibwr said...

The question is what is education for. To my mind it certainly isn't about providing people with specific skills to do specific jobs, that is the function of job training. For a qualification at 16 I would look for evidence a broad base of knowledge over a wide range of subjects, coupled with a demonstration of skills such as the ability to extract information from multiple sources and to coherently present a report based on that. Basic numeracy skills would also be required.

The purpose of education should be to equip people with the skills for further learning and a basic background of information to function in the modern world.

The qualification should reflect that, and should probably be pitched at several levels.

Post 16 we should strengthen the Welsh Bac and make it more like the International Baccalaureate. Now that England has trashed the joint exam system we should not be afraid of creating our own system of post 14 and post 16 exams.

On a tangent, its also confusing that in England they are going to call it the English Bac, when the Welshbac is essentially a post 16 rather than a post 14 qualification.

Anonymous said...

Privatisation always (or at least usually) "works" in the narrow sense. If you look at the old nationalised industries, they were hotbeds of inefficiency, and the private industries that have replaced them are simply more efficient. That's not a criticism of nationalisation per se, but those particular British state corporations that used to exist. Whether they could have been improved without privatisation is another question altogether.

The problem with privatisation often isn't on efficiency grounds, its that in public services the end result is simply not adequate for society.

Additionally, when a public good is privatised, the legal and regulatory climate favoured in the UK and the EU means taking anything back into public ownership is often legally dubious or financially prohibitive.

A solution must be found for this because marketisation and competition in utilities is often bad for society. Because of issues such as climate change and inequality we really need to see the state (whatever state) doing more, not less.

Anonymous said...

Privatisation most definitley works when dealing with manufacturing of widgets or selling of fast moving consumer goods.

The problem with treating education and health as consumer products is that the 'customer' is not neccesarily the person recieving the product - but it is society as a whole. And this is what Thatcherite type reforms have spectacularly failed to adress

Penddu

Anonymous said...

Penddu- you've made the point I wanted to make alot more succintly. Thanks.

Siônnyn said...

Penddu- definitely a case of knowing the price of everything, but the value of nothing!

Anonymous said...

I disagree with Anon 13:32 that nationalised industries were hotbeds of inefficiency. We did exactly what was asked of us - extremely efficiently. The target and task placed upon the coal industry was 'output per man shift'. At no point, prior to Thatcher were we asked to make a profit. Obviously, since Thatcher, profit became the goal, and having purchased the colliery into common ownership, we made £3million profit per year delivering 370million tonnes. In production of a tangible commodity it is what is asked of the organisation, not it's ownership.

You mean there's more??? said...

If we are thinkiing private versus public lets drag G4S up again. They were tasked with doing a job, given two years to sort it then messed up at the last minute.

The Police and Military had the show up and running in two weeks.

So which was efficient and effective?

G4S claimed it took them 58 million just to administer their failiure and on top of that providing the workforce with some cheap bits of uniform cost 6000 pound a head. I bet the army spend less than that to issue their soldiers with proper uniforms for less than that.


Anonymous said...

"Anonymous said...
I disagree with Anon 13:32 that nationalised industries were hotbeds of inefficiency. We did exactly what was asked of us - extremely efficiently. The target and task placed upon the coal industry was 'output per man shift'. At no point, prior to Thatcher were we asked to make a profit. Obviously, since Thatcher, profit became the goal, and having purchased the colliery into common ownership, we made £3million profit per year delivering 370million tonnes. In production of a tangible commodity it is what is asked of the organisation, not it's ownership."

Fair points and let's not get off on the wrong foot. I wrote the comment, and I am completely anti-privatisation and pro-state ownership. I am much more radical than Labour or even Plaid on that question.

The problem was that there wasn't socialism. There wasn't workers' control.