Flow of Ideas

Marketisation of the Schools System in England

Glenn Rikowski, London, 25th November 2007


The 1988 Education Reform Act in England, which has largely set the scene for school life in England ever since, was an odd mixture of neoliberal and neoconservative elements. Its ‘marketising’ aspects, open enrolment, local management of schools (LMS), per capita funding and league tables (of SATs and GCSE results), alongside greater parental choice, followed the neoliberal path. Of course, the market in the schools sector in England is in a process of development. This is why the concept of ‘marketisation’ is appropriate, referring to economic, political, social and educational processes whereby the ‘market’ is becoming; that is, it is in a state emergence and development. The precise ways to nurture the market in the schools system on England is what divides the Conservative and New Labour parties. New Labour tries desperately to trim parental choice to questions of equity, at least in its rhetoric; whilst the Conservatives seem to want to let the full force of parental choice rip.

Marketisation of the Schools System in England

Following the 1988 Education Reform Act, there was an explosion of writing by educational researchers and commentators in education journals regarding the perceived and likely effects of the emerging schools ‘market’. As Rikowski (1996) indicated, questions regarding the efficacy of markets in the schools sector, their consequences for social justice and equality, their effects on standards, community cohesion, and inter-school collaboration were discussed at great length. However, Rikowski also noted that much of the discussion on the developing schools market was held without much regard to the actual commodities that such a market dealt in. Thus, the result was a discussion on ‘education markets and missing products’ (Rikowski, 1996). Stephen Ball (2006) has argued that there is a lot of loose talk about education ‘markets’, where concepts such as ‘competition’ and ‘competitive’ are often used interchangeably with that of ‘market’ (p.116). Thus, Ball argues:

“I would suggest that any comprehensive attempt to review and describe the use of the market form in English education needs to address: competition, supply and demand, producer and consumer behaviour, privatisation and commodification, values and ethics and distributional outcomes” (2006, p.116).

Therefore, argues Ball, we need to unpack the concept of ‘market’ in relation to schools in terms of its constituent parts and aspects. He also notes the lack of relevant research on these issues in England.

Of course, in the schools system in England today there is no direct, official payment by parents for school places outside of the private or ‘independent’ sector. Parents do not ‘buy’ a school place in the same way that they would a tin of baked beans. There is not a full-blown market in the schools system. This has led some such as Julian Le Grand to talk about “quasi-markets” in schools. Wikipedia has described quasi-markets thus:

“A quasi-market is a public sector institutional structure that is designed to reap the efficiency gains of free markets without losing the equity benefits of traditional systems of public administration and financing” (2006).

Yet recent press reports suggest that there are undesirable consequences of the marketisation of the schools system in England set in train by the 1988 Education Reform Act.

Bad Vibrations

Indeed, Wikipedia noted that:

“Critics of quasi-markets argue that they can lead to problems of cream-skimming. For example, the introduction of open enrolment in UK secondary schools after 1988 (whereby parents could choose which secondary school to send their child to, rather than being limited to the nearest) led to popular schools being oversubscribed. This allowed these schools to select which pupils they would accept, leading some to discriminate against children from low-income backgrounds or non-traditional family structures … Open enrolment also led popular schools to expand their intake, leading to the growth of very large schools with resulting discipline problems, at the expense of small and rural schools” (2006).

Jim Kelly (2004), for example, reports that some schools turn away pupils at 11 because they won’t be included in GCSE league tables. With head teachers afraid about losing their jobs if GCSE results start to slip, some are adopting desperate measures: such as dropping struggling year 8 pupils down into year 7 (p.2). Mary Riddell (2005) points to the lengths some middle-class parents will go to get their child into a good school, with moving house and hiring private tutors being particularly common strategies. These tactics, of course, widen the class divide, as poorer and working class parents cannot afford to ‘play the market’ in schools in these ways to the same extent. As Anthony Browne (2007) noted last weekend in The Observer:

“A recent survey suggested that most parents are prepared to move house to get the catchment area of a good school. Many of those are prepared to pay higher house prices to do so, effectively buying a better state education.”

In such ways, money comes into the equation, thereby developing the schools market in its wake. Browne’s solution is similar to that of the Conservative Party’s: let parents set up new schools with government money in areas where schools are failing.

Cameron’s Bluff?

Browne’s solution is in line with that of proposals set out by the Conservative Party in its “Green Paper” last week (see Murphy, 2007; Paton, 2007; and Woolcock, 2007). Basically, the Conservatives want to create ‘220,000 “good schools places’, concentrating these in poor areas’ (Paton , 2007). Their main mechanism for doing this is to sanction ‘new’ Academies by letting groups of parents, ‘education charities, philanthropists and trusts’ set up these schools (Murphy, 2007). But can we trust the Conservatives to do this for the poor and disadvantaged?

When the Assisted Places Scheme (APS) was set up by the Conservatives in the early 1980s, it was argued that talented but poor children in inner-city areas could benefit from going to private schools, backed by money from the state. The APS was launched to facilitate this. However, it was found that middle-class kids tended to benefit relatively more from the APS as compared with talented working class and disadvantaged children. Can we trust the Conservatives this time round that their ‘new’ Academies, especially those set up by parents, would not benefit middle class at the expense of working class pupils?

It would also seem that the Conservative proposals would deepen the marketisation of the schools system in England by creating yet another type of school with low or zero accountability to the local education authority. Yet more islands of ‘independent’ state schools fragmenting the ‘system’. New Labour is not far behind the Conservatives in their thinking, especially in their support for the Swedish school system, with its strong marketising flavour (see Crace, 2007). With the development of the market in the schools system, issues of equity regarding admissions become crucial. This may well be where both New Labour and the Conservatives find problems in the years to come.


Ball, S. (2006) Educational Reform, Market Concepts and Ethical Re-tooling, in: Education Policy and Social Class: The Selected Works of Stephen J. Ball, London: Routledge.

Browne, A. (2007) Free our schools from a fatally flawed system, The Observer, 18th November, p.11, online at: http://observer.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,,2212889,00.html

Crace, J. (2007) Wanted: attractive Swedish model, The Guardian (Education), 20th November, pp.1-2, online at: http://education.guardian.co.uk/egweekly/story/0,,2213555,00.html

Kelly, J. (2004) Out for the count, The Guardian (Education), 11th May, pp.2-3.

Murphy, J. (2007) Cameron: bring back respect to classroom, London Evening Standard, 20th November, p.2.

Paton, P. (2007) Let parents open own schools, say Tories, Daily Telegraph, 21st November, p.16, online at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2007/11/21/nschools121.xml

Riddell, M. (2005) Don’t blame the children in the battle for parents’ votes, The Observer, 1st May, p.18.

Rikowski, G. (1996) Education Markets and Missing Products, Revised and extended paper first presented at the Conference of Socialist Economists, University of Northumbria, Newcastle, 7-9th July 1995. This revised version dated 18th December 1996: http://www.flowideas.co.uk/?page=articles&sub=Education%20Markets%20and%20Missing%20Products

Wikipedia (2006) Quasi-market, at Wikipedia, last modified 22nd December 2006: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quasi-market

Woolcock, N. (2007) Tucking in shirts is the best way to get children to pull their socks up, says Cameron, The Times, 21st November, p.30.

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