Monopolistic self-interest rules Welsh education

Malcolm Prowle says the only way to improve our schools is to introduce contestability and choice

Some fifteen years ago I worked on a project which concerned the improvement of primary education standards in the Indian state of West Bengal. At the outset of the project it was necessary to meet with ministers and senior civil servants in the Central Government Ministry of Education in New Delhi.

What an interesting experience that was. We were involved in deep conversations with Harvard educated civil servants who wished to talk about lofty matters such as curriculum design and international pedagogical standards. After more meetings with politicians and civil servants in the state government in Calcutta we eventually managed to get out and actually see some schools and have conversations with real-life teachers and parents. What we found included:

  • Schools without any roof because it had blown off in the wind and hadn’t been repaired.
  • Schools without books or very much in the way of curriculum materials.
  • Schools without a teacher because the teacher had a second job and had left someone in charge of the class.
  • Areas unable to recruit teachers because of failures in the teacher training system.

Seeing this it seemed to me that the senior people in New Delhi were operating on a different planet to those teachers based in schools in rural parts of India. They were completely out of touch with reality on the ground.

The experience reminds me of the situation with regards to schooling in Wales. Our education policy is detached from what is actually happening on the ground. Some months ago I drew attention to the parlous state of Welsh schooling and, in particular, the position of Wales in relation to PISA scores. (here). It seems to me that since that time the situation has probably got worse not better.

Let’s get real about this – schools improvement is absolutely critical for the future of Wales, but let’s remember, as a starting point, a number of facts:

  • Wales has a smaller population than any other part of the UK saving the North East Region of England and Northern Ireland.
  • The Welsh economy is the least productive in the UK. In terms of gross value added per head of population, Wales is at the bottom of the UK league table.
  • The Welsh economy cannot exist in isolation but is inextricably linked to the rest of the UK economy, the European economy and the global economy.
  • If Wales is to compete in economic terms our children must have educational attainment comparable to the rest of the UK and other countries in the world.

In terms of school performance what is the situation of Wales within the UK? Take the percentage of children who obtain grades A-C in their GCSE examinations, which is probably of most interest to parents. What we see is a picture of increasing pass rates in both Wales and the rest of the UK over a period of years in the first decade of the 21st Century. However, there was a sharp reversal in pass rates in 2012 with Wales showing a drop of 1.1 per cent compared to a drop of 0.4 per cent in the rest of the UK. The net effect of all this is that the pass rates in Wales still remains a full 4 per cent below the rest of the UK and the gap has widened. The Welsh Education Minister was quoted as describing this result as “encouraging”. How complacent can you get?

The Welsh Government provides a comprehensive range of information on all Welsh schools but while this information is interesting, it misses the point. There is little point just comparing an individual Welsh school against other schools in the locality and throughout Wales. What we need is information which compares Welsh school performance with the rest of the UK (and perhaps the rest of the world) so we can see where we stand against our international competitors. At the moment we do not stand very well and we urgently need to improve.

Anglesey, Blaenau Gwent, and Pembrokeshire are in special measures for education, with Torfaen, Merthyr Tydfil and Monmouthshire set to join them. Nearly a third of Welsh local education authorities are in special measures.  To this we can add a number of individual schools in special measures, plus another few local authorities who came pretty close to being placed in this situation (and probably would have been if there hadn’t already been an unacceptable number).

This seems to me to be a crisis situation for the Welsh schooling system. But if we look at the issues that are the focus of current debate we see such matters as GCSE examinations, curriculum structures, bilingualism, areas of learning, and pedagogy. These matters are certainly important, but they are unlikely to provide the solution to poor school standards in Wales. That is a systemic problem.

So what is to be done? Until Ministers realise that they won’t get the sort of change they want by issuing threats and edicts from on high we won’t make any progress. All the circulars, laws, inspections, special measures, advice, and commissioners won’t get anywhere until we get back to basics and consider the factors that inhibit improvements in the Welsh schools system. Then we have to make changes to the education system to remove those barriers and effect change for improvement.

A significant barrier to improvement must be overcoming what is termed “provider self-interest”. Writing in the 18th Century the famous economist Adam Smith said:

“The interest of the dealers in any particular branch of trade or manufactures is always in some respects different from, and even opposite to, that of the public. To narrow the competition, is always the interest of the dealers. To widen the market may frequently be agreeable enough to the interest of the public; but to narrow the competition must always be against it.”

Smith is often described as a ‘right wing’ economist but that is a caricature he, himself, would never have recognised. He was a professor of moral philosophy who recognised the negative impacts on ordinary people of unfettered capitalism and the impact of monopolistic suppliers (including those in the public sector) on the public good. His views about the dangers of monopoly suppliers would have been shared by Marx and many other political scientists.

In many parts of the public sector (including schools) I suggest most of the reforms being proposed in Wales will be stifled by the negative responses of those working in the schools sector, namely the teaching professions and trade unions. Now while it is understandable that these organisations wish to look after the interests of their members, it is not necessary for the general public or the political classes to accept or support their views. 

If we really want to improve the schools system in Wales we have to introduce some degree of provider competition in order to shake up the existing monopolistic arrangements. Let’s face it, those who are unwilling or unable to send their children to private schools have only two choices – the schools run by their home local authority or home schooling. They have some freedom to choose individual schools but that is often severely constrained.

Why not permit other organisations (private, voluntary or faith-based) to bid for local authority funding to establish and run their own schools. In this way we would  break down the monopoly of local authorities using schools funding solely for the purposes of running their own schools. Such a move could improve the choices available to parents and provide the catalyst to breakdown monopolistic self-interest and raise standards. Endless objections will be raised to such a proposal but many of them will be found to arise from existing provider self-interest.

It is misleading to describe this as a Tory policy or an English policy, as is so often the case in Wales. It is a much-needed response to a calamitous situation. While some in the Labour Party may prefer a monopolistic provision of public services by the state on ideological grounds, this is not an underlying principle of Labour Party socialism in the UK. Many members of the Labour Party believe strongly that competition in public services is a good thing provided it is regulated Two well-known examples are Alan Milburn (former Labour Cabinet Minister and one-time Trotskyist) and the academic economist (and former Labour Government adviser) Professor Julian Le-Grand. While passionate about the “ethical case concerning user choice and competitive provision in quasi-markets” they also note that the available evidence supports its effectiveness.

If Welsh Ministers just sit on their hands and don’t make the sort of radical changes needed, I suspect that in three years’ time we will still be bemoaning the state of the Welsh schools system which may have got even worse. In a time of financial austerity (which isn’t going to go away) the only way we are going to get significant improvement in Welsh schooling is by radical change.

Isn’t it time the Welsh Government forgot about headline catching things like new law making powers or taking over responsibility for policing services in Wales, and concentrated on bread and butter issues like delivering substantial improvements on what is perhaps the most important public service of all and the one which has the greatest impact on the future of Wales.

Malcolm Prowle, who lives in Wales, is Professor of Business Performance at Nottingham Business School and a visiting professor at the Open University Business School.

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