Injecting Competition: A response to Gabriel Sahlgren and Julian Le Grand

Gabriel Sahlgren (research director of the Centre for Market Reform of Education) and Julian Le Grand (professor at the London School of Economics) co-authored an interesting, if ultimately unconvincing, comment piece for the Financial Times advocating increased competition between schools. In this response I have quoted liberally from the article of which can be found in full here. I would encourage all to read it before going any further.

The article coincides with media coverage of yet more anxiety inducing evidence from PISA about relative achievements of western and Asian children and Liz Truss' trip to Shanghai to find out how to teach Maths properly. The article actually starts quite sensibly with a warning from the authors, apparently to Truss, about her jaunt and the pitfalls of copying apparently successful education systems before thinking things through:

“Yet in their rush to copy the winning formula of high-performing countries in east Asia, politicians risk drawing the wrong conclusions.

Schools in Shanghai are very different from those in Ms Truss’s constituency in southwest Norfolk. But not all of those differences play a role in Shanghai’s superior performance. Some are irrelevant. Some may even be harmful. And some will be idiosyncratic features of the school she happens to visit, rather than representative of the system.”

The authors even expand on this by pointing out that the gap between the best and worst students is larger in the educational holy lands than anywhere else in the world. So should we, which is what the authors must be implying about Shanghai, raise standards by focusing on the best students to drag up average outcomes? The answer appears to be a resounding no as there is apparently 'no evidence that the inequality of outcomes in east Asian schools contributes to raising standards'. It is with this, quite bizarre, statement that Sahlgren and Le Grand's argument begins to unravel.

Contrary to what is said a successful focus on any particular sub group of students will raise standards in some way if one presumes that the focus group is being taught better. The only argument against this is ethical which would be fine if the same ethical objections to inequality weren't subsequently dismissed by Sahlgren and Le Grand as an argument against competition between schools. Competition, you see, can 'force laggards to improve' – the assumption being that the laggards will improve faster than anyone else and close the gap accordingly. It takes some nerve to wag the inequality finger at high outcomes Shanghai while predicting their own medicine will raise standards and close the gap here yet this is exactly what the authors seem to be doing:

“One policy that can increase general standards of accomplishments while reducing inequality is injecting competition into the system.”

One would assume there is some evidence for all of this beyond the usual snake oil offered by educational economists about academies and charter schools and, to their credit, this is not lost on Sahlgren and Le Grand:

“Much of the debate centres around whether academies perform better than other schools on the most important measures of student attainment.

These arguments miss the point. It is difficult to be sure whether one school performs better than another because it is an academy, because it is funded more generously, or because it attracts students who would have performed well wherever they went to school. Pointing to the success of a small number of UK academies is no better than indiscriminately copying from the countries that have the highest grades.”

Kudos to that but the problem here is that Sahlgren and Le Grand's alternative evidence (West & Woessmann 2010) isn't much of an improvement. In short West & Woessmann have linked the 'the legacy of the Vatican's effort' in some countries which is 'competition in schools' to high attaining systems. If this is going to be useful how does one quickly recreate the legacy effects of a phenomena that started in the 19th century? And is a pseudo Protestant and pseudo Catholic education movement represented by corporate, modern academy chains even palatable in the first place? One might live with these practical doubts if the authors weren't guilty of yet more finger wagging this time about the virtue of 'copying the country with the highest grades' while justifying their own position on the basis of, er, high grades.

So what is one to make of this apparent cherry picking? Perhaps the message is don't copy the systems or schools with the highest grades unless there is a legacy of competition in that system in which case do copy because, hey guess what, those systems have the strongest attainment? Or perhaps the message is to avoid high attaining systems with high levels of educational inequality unless there is competition between the schools in which case, relax, the laggards are sure to catch up eventually? Sahlgren and Le Grand have a tendency for over optimism and, given their earlier criticism of 'highest grades', have not justified the evidence offered to support their position in enough detail. What is most depressing is the absence of any analysis at all about the impact of competition that already exists between schools in some Western countries. These things leave me with the impression that the article is little more than a thinly vieled broadside against education systems that have not adopted free market principles rather than a compelling argument for market based reform.


Educational Platitudes #1: “Kayleigh wants to do well”

Kayleigh's (Yr 9) behaviour and attitude has nose dived since the start of the academic year. Once a bright eyed, hard working and enthusiastic Year 7 Kayleigh has metamorphosed into the archetypal stroppy teen – always late, comatose in class, addicted to socialising in the girls bathroom, the lip piercing, troweled on make up and her accompanying odour of cigarettes and hairspray have attracted the attention of the dysfunctional boys. Kayleigh is addicted to social hierarchy and petty feuding. Any attempt by an adult to interfere with this is met with defiance and aggression.

And so it comes to pass that after failed report cards, endless meetings with the school quack and frustrated teachers on the wrong end of a 'fuck off' that Kayleigh and her mother (along with a young step sibling – there is always a step sibling) are summoned to a meeting with SLT. If SLT were the living descendants of Ghengis Khan then there would be room for optimism here but they are not. As ever weak SLT, when confronted with the inconvenient reality of life outside the office walls, choose the path of least resistance and this is to extract a confession from Kayleigh that 'she wants to do well'. This confession is then presented to the baying hordes of the staffroom as a triumph, as evidence of SLT's heightened emotional intelligence and as justification for no further action on their part; you see Kayleigh 'wants to do well' and it follows that the questionable attitudes of her teachers are the reason she isn't.

Bullshit. So 'Kayleigh wants to do well'? Show me a child who doesn't want to do well! If one accepts that the overwhelming majority of children want to do well then the vapidness of the questioning becomes clear. Extracting a meaningful dialouge from an underachieving child begins with putting thier desire to achieve to one side and focusing on whether the child wants to put in the effort required to make it happen. Like many an adult who wants be thinner but doesn't want to lay off the cake Kayleigh wants a string of good grades without making the sacrifices required to achieve them.

And what sacrifices! Kayleigh needs to swap the soap opera of petty feuds and the instant, cheap, gratification that comes with the attention of her friends for listening to teachers, revision clubs and evenings in studying with the family that are ignoring her. But of course this will never happen because making it happen requires the adults in Kayleigh's life to show her the way, have tough conversations where necessary and show a willingness to confront low expectations in all its forms. Sadly for the adults in the best position to provide these things it is enough for Kayleigh to 'want to do well'.