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A school system ready for business

Blog Editor, IOE Digital14 May 2012

Stephen Ball
The House of Commons Education Select Committee recommendation for the introduction of performance–related pay (PRP) for teachers has sparked appropriate controversy and some unusual support and dissent. But of course this is not the first time we have been here. The existing “threshold” arrangements for teachers’ pay are the outcome of Labour’s failure to get PRP accepted by the teacher unions.
From the point of view of education policy the important thing is not to see PRP in isolation. Its reappearance has to be related to other policy trends and initiatives as part of a policy ensemble. That is, an interacting set of policies that have effects together. I am thinking of the introduction of new providers of free schools and academies, the creation of school chains, the awarding of contracts to run state schools to private providers, the possibility that free schools can employ untrained teachers, the refusal of some academies to recognise teacher unions and participate in national agreements on teachers’ pay and conditions, and the use of school examination pass percentages to construct league tables, set benchmarks for performance and identify “failing” schools.
Much depends on the fine detail but PRP looks like a further move toward a flexible workforce employed on short term, outcomes-based contracts, and a further diminution of the influence of teacher unions. Both of which are very attractive to existing school chains and private providers interested in taking on the running of state schools. By far the largest component of school budgets is staff salaries, if salaries can be tied more closely to contract requirements, and overall salary costs driven down by employing cheaper and unqualified teachers, then overheads and profits can be derived.
PRP is a further step towards an education system modelled directly on business methods and that is “ready” for commercial exploitation. And yet it is odd perhaps that schools are being encouraged to move to a system of remuneration that has served investment banks and the world’s financial systems so badly in recent times.

In selective Bucks, an academy goes comprehensive

Blog Editor, IOE Digital27 April 2012

Stephen Ball
Brian Jackson and Dennis Marsden’s seminal study of grammar schooling in Huddersfield, Education and the Working Class, was published by Penguin books exactly 50 years ago. Focused on the experiences of 88 working class children, it is about class mobility, class inequality and social waste, and what Jackson and Marsden describe as a “blockage” – selective education. The authors had both attended the grammar school which is at the centre of the research and Alan Bennett, another “local lad”, has acknowledged that the book provided the basis for his play The History Boys, which is set in Cutlers’ Grammar School, Sheffield, a fictional boys’ school.
What Education and the Working Class demonstrates is how thoroughly and insidiously – and damagingly, for some young people – the grammar school is a middle class institution, a “natural extension” of middle class home life as the authors put it. The grammar school was, and remains in a few places in England, a conduit of class advantage, a privileged site within which middle class cultural capital and economic investment in coaching and tutoring could be readily converted into qualifications and symbolic capital.
All of this has been rehearsed again this month in the admission by Buckinghamshire County Council that their 11+ examination carries an inherent bias which works in favour of “the affluent”. Perversely the Buckinghamshire revelation came about as a result of the insertion into the county system of a conversion academy, Highcrest, which will become the first comprehensive school in the County, with control over its own admissions policy.
Education Secretary Michael Gove announced in December that parents will be stripped of the right to object to the expansion of grammar schools, under a new school admissions code laid before Parliament. So it is ironic that one bit of government policy – support for grammar schooling – is being called into question by another bit – the extension of academy status to more, perhaps all, schools.
We might think about whether this says something about the lack of “thinking through” of policy by its makers or wonder how the support for grammar schools relates to the government’s other commitments to social mobility and tackling social disadvantage through education, or ponder what Jackson and Marsden might think about the fact that Buckinghamshire is getting its first comprehensive school 50 years after they argued in their book that the first step towards creating “open”, “bold and flexible” schooling would be “to abandon selection at eleven, and accept the comprehensive principle” (p 246). Who would have thought that the academies policy would be a vehicle for comprehensivisation?