A Market in Children

This will be a short blog (by my standards), and it’s a simple cry of rage. It was prompted by two conversations I had recently. The first was with a friend of mine who left state school teaching after twenty years for many of the same reasons which I write about, but was forced by economic necessity back into a private school catering for the children of wealthy foreigners – mostly eastern Europeans. The second was with an ex-colleague I once worked with at the DFE. Although unconnected, both hit on the same theme : how the introduction of “the market” in education has produced awful consequences for our children.

It’s not enough to be clever, you have to be rich

My friend’s private school sounds, on the face of it, mad. Focused on A-level, most of the students don’t speak English at all, and many bring with them the attitudes of their parents back in Russia, a fair proportion of whom seem to have made their money in ways you wouldn’t associate with liberal democratic values. On top of that, the teaching staff sound like the cast of characters from a Tom Sharpe novel. The headteacher/owner pays effectively only zero-hours contracts, so no holiday pay, no job security and a poor hourly rate. He also makes the teachers buy their own stationary for use in classes, arguing it’s part of their job to provide the necessary learning tools. As a result, few of the teachers are there by choice, and most – like my friend – through desperation for a job in an area where there are few to go around. I can’t share specific anecdotes for fear of identifying the “school”, but take my word for it that they’d make your hair stand on end. My view has always been that this is a “mushroom school”. It pops up, scams the cash-rich-but-understanding-poor foreign customers by pretending to be some sort of Eton-style English Establishment education, and then the owner scoots off with the cash as soon as it starts to fall apart. And fall apart it must, I confidently thought.

But I had been wilfully blind, as my conversation yesterday showed:

Me : How’s your mushroom school ? Do you think it’s got long left ?

Friend : I’m not sure it’s going to close soon. It’s oversubscribed for next year already.

Me : But how ? Surely once the parents see the results (they were excruciatingly bad), the number of mugs willing to shell out thousands in fees will dry up.

Friend : I’m not sure the results matter. They get reduced offers.

Me : What, offers like “Because your child is likely only to get an ‘E’ here, we’ll reduce the fees” ?

Friend : No, from universities. Because they’re foreign students paying full fees, they get offers of two ‘Es’ from even very good universities. So their results don’t matter. The school is just a way to buy some rubbish A-level grades in order to get into prestigious UK universities.

Me : ….

Let’s be clear. These students, who in many cases don’t speak the language, are not very able, or have the work ethic of a tranquilized sloth, are taking places from the students I teach who not only speak the lingo fluently, but who are clearly intelligent and work bloody hard. Or, to put it another way: capable, deserving English students with higher grades are being denied places at English universities in favour of semi-literate Russians with lower grades which were in any case only achieved through having their teachers write their coursework for them. It’s enough to make you want to vote UKIP (well, you’d need a frontal lobotomy and a spoonful of racism too, but you get my drift).

Call me naïve, but I was taken aback by this. I knew foreign students paid higher fees – that’s why universities are so keen on them. But in my innocence I assumed that those foreign students had to show that they’d achieved the same level of attainment as English students entering the same course. So I believed that courses were expanded as demand expanded, and if you missed out, it was only because everyone else on the course got better grades. What an idiot I am. I just hadn’t put all the pieces together.

Consider this : every year, some university or other will put out a statement bemoaning the fact that they are having to offer catch-up courses for first year students who don’t seem academically suited to the degree in question. Could this, I wonder, be in any way connected to the fact that they are filling their courses not with high-achieving English students, but with the offspring of eastern European gangsters ? And when a government Minister next stands up to complain that our universities are not producing sufficient STEM graduates for the economy, could we all shout in unison that this might have something to do with the fact that a high proportion of those STEM course places at English universities are not being allocated to able and hard-working English students, but to the children of the international rich who are either demonstrably less able than the English students they have excluded by their presence or – in the happy coincidence of being rich, foreign AND clever – are going to bugger off back to their own country, taking their expensive English STEM training with them ?

Who wins ? The increasingly well-paid executives in universities, and the international rich, who can buy their children a place on prestigious degree courses from highly-rated institutions.

Who loses ? Our children, and our wallets, as we continue to subsidize the HE institutions whose generous admissions criteria for the wealthy are excluding our own children.

This is “the market” in Higher Education, which has been established for some time. But while the market in HE has damaged young people’s prospects, been manifestly unfair, and actively harmed the national interest, those aren’t the lessons which our GERM adherents of market dogma have taken away. No, what they’ve taken away from this is that a few people at the top of the system can become very rich indeed. So then they turned their beady eyes to our schools.

sell schools

“Some schools will fail as the market takes over”

That’s a quote from Gove. I’ll come back to it after I’ve dumped some bile on the page.

We need to be very clear here. Gove’s reforms were never about children. They were about privatising education. If I wanted to be generous, I’d say that Gove, as a one-eyed ideological simpleton, genuinely believed that privatising education would help children, because in the economically illiterate world of half-baked, self-serving, neo-liberal theories which he inhabits, the market is automatically better at anything than the state, and so privatising the schools system must, in Gove’s tiny, sociopathic brain, result in better outcomes. This generous interpretation would see Gove not as a malevolent grasping figure, but as merely a thoughtless idiot, too moronic to see through the obvious flaws in his preferred economic theory. It’s a tempting view, as he’s in the Conservative party, and that political party didn’t get the historical nickname of “The Stupid Party” for nothing.


However, I’m not generous. Gove wanted to privatise education because, like the rest of his greedy accomplices, he sees a huge multi-billion pound budget and he thinks it should be directed to himself and his friends. They call it shrinking the state, but of course it’s not shrinking the state, because the money still has to be spent on schools. It’s just that, if the state spends the money directly, then you have to deal with all those tedious requirements of probity, oversight, executive pay restraint and giving your staff decent terms and conditions. If, on the other hand, you create a market, with edubusinesses being funded at arm’s length, then you can dispense with all that “treating human beings decently” business, and get on with the serious business of pocketing large amounts of cash for party donors and rich men much like himself.

Taking his main policies in turn :

Academy chains and Multi-Academy Trusts are private education companies. They are not “sponsors” because they take money out, rather than putting money in (academy executives must be really surprised when a child approaches them to support a sponsored swim and then expects to receive cash from the executive after it’s completed). They are not “charities” unless you think it’s normal for charities to pay their executives six-figure salaries and funnel increasing amounts of cash given for good causes into payments for unspecified “services” from companies which also happen to be owned by the same executives. There is a whole load of chaff being kicked out to obscure what they are, but they are, in fact, edubusinesses. We’re already starting to see schools being transferred from one chain to another, as if they’re supermarket sites being moved from Tesco to Sainsbury’s. We have branding and marketing. We have a growing parasitical “executive” class who are pocketing salaries far higher than anything which the old LEAs used to see. These are the firms making up the future educational cartel. Private sector “business practices” have produced the usual dismal litany of corruption which accompanies any market, from MAT “directors” directing the school budget into their own companies, to the sort of petty theft of the self-important-but-small-minded variety : designer coffee pots, expenses accounts, and an inability to distinguish between the school’s budget and the head’s own bank account.

Mass Academization was designed to push schools not into independent existence, but into these edubusinesses. Originally, Gove thought academies would willingly join the chains, presumably in the same way that turkeys routinely cote for Christmas. When they proved rationally reluctant to do so, force was applied. Schools are not now allowed to convert into stand-alone academies, but are required to join chains – whether they like it or not. Ofsted have long been used as a club to beat schools into chains, in the face of often ferocious opposition from parents. Gove’s model is that every school in the country will become part of a chain. Then they can be treated the way he thinks they should be treated : as educational business franchises.

Schools-based training expansion is a clear part of this picture. If the edubusinesses are going to be able to either force staff to do inhuman levels of work, or reduce their pay, or simply sack the more expensive/bolshie ones, then they need cheap, malleable replacements. There’s nothing cheaper and more malleable than a fresh graduate trainee who can work 24/7, doesn’t ask too many questions if they want to secure a job, and is paid at the bottom of the pay scale.

Performance Related Pay was entirely about reducing the wage bill. Staff costs are a fairly constant 75-85% of the budget in most schools. Which makes sense, as they’re very human-intensive institutions. Again, the chaff was about “rewarding great teachers”. Bollocks. It was about enabling the aforementioned edubusinesses to reduce the staff costs so that they can skim off more cash for themselves. Put bluntly, the kleptocrats who sit on both academy chain boards and can also be found in the DFE rather too frequently to avoid the dank stench of corruption, made it clear to Gove that private businessmen didn’t see enough profit in schools until they could pay those pesky teachers less. Hello PRP !


You don’t need to be Hercule Poirot to see the pattern here.

“Some schools will fail as the market takes over”

I occasionally write about Gove’s “vandalism”, but I’m wrong to do so. It wasn’t just mindless destruction. Everything he did had a purpose, and that purpose was to privatise education. When I wrote the blog a couple of days ago about the recruitment crisis, I had the largest response I’ve ever had. I described worsening terms and conditions; cuts in real pay; huge increases in workload; a growing distance between a self-enriching “executive” class and a hammered classroom workforce; the unjustified destruction of HE-based teacher training; and the endless praise for great private edubusiness “leaders”, coupled with the repeated inaccurate portrayal of a failing schools system somehow caused by public sector institutions like LEAs, universities or experienced teachers (“the Blob”). My description clearly struck a chord with many. But I think it’s important to understand that this is not random. The policies which have created this perfect storm in our schools are deliberate, and they are designed to create a private “market” in schools, which is funded by the state but controlled by private companies. It is a system in which the focus is not the child, but the profit. The children are merely commodities : raw materials which the business has to deal in.

You can see this attitude already when the Harris chain makes children disappear from their rolls if they are likely to impact negatively on their marketing statistics. You see it when ordinary schools start kicking out their own students after GCSE if they don’t look likely to boost the school’s A*-B A-level figures. You see it when schools in academy chains employ 70% NQTs and trainee teachers, with astounding turnover, because the profit they can pay themselves in the form of stratospheric director salaries is more important to them than stability or experienced teachers might be to the students. You see it when shadowy “academy brokers” employed by the DFE force unwilling schools into chains run by the same rich men who also sit on the DFE Board.

All the misery, all the problems which are now coming to a head with the recruitment crisis, are a direct result of policies designed to introduce “the market”. The hundreds of thousands of teachers whose lives have been made less bearable, and the millions of children who are now at risk of having no teacher, or being taught each year by a different inadequately trained, overworked NQT who is barely out of school themselves, result from this central aim : introducing the market.


The UK needs more political cartoonists so I can stop nicking US stuff

So back to that quote.

When he was pushing his “reforms” through in the DFE, clever DFE officials warned him that the chaos which would ensue would risk serious negative consequences in schools. I know for a fact that he was warned that he was creating a recruitment crisis. At one meeting, presumably irritated by these damn civil servants who kept throwing ugly reality at the beautiful ideological purity of his market goals, and perhaps egged on by Dominic “Mad as a Box of Frogs” Cummings, he said the following :

“Some schools will fail as the market takes over”

And there you have it. Collateral damage was acceptable. In Gove’s view, the market produces winners and losers, and that’s how it should be. Let competition decide, let some schools rise and some schools fall, and let rich men get richer. Wonderful.

Except schools are not franchises of Costa Coffee, and they don’t have customers who can simply shop elsewhere. That school is the only chance those kids are getting this year, and if you’ve forced out all their teachers, or handed it over to one of your party-donating friends for them to suck profits out of the budget while kids go without books, then you’ve screwed them. Those are our children in those schools. Those are our mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers who teach those children. Those are real people trying to do a very difficult but very important job. The children are not products. The teachers are not units of capital. They’re people. They’re us.

But hey, Michael: we may have your recruitment crisis and all the negative consequences that will bring to our children, but at least you have your market, eh ? And your friends are getting VERY rich. Good job.


21 thoughts on “A Market in Children

  1. Reblogged this on disgruntled teacher and commented:
    “…anger is often a reasonable response to an unreasonable world. We should be suspicious when the powerful tell the powerless not to be so angry…to just be reasonable. It is in the interests of the powerful to say such things. Anger can be a weapon in the hands of the powerless; it can broadcast injustice; it can draw crowds; it can motivate us to do what we would otherwise be too afraid or too resigned to do.”
    “…we should ask ourselves what might happen if we were angrier about the privatisation of public goods and the erosion of the private sphere; about austerity in an age of massive inequality; about the demise of social security and the rise of corporate subsidy; about cuts to legal aid and the NHS…about zero hours contracts…”
    “…anger isn’t justified only when it can be put to some concrete use. Anger is justified when it responds to a moral failing in the world. We often hear about people being blinded by anger but anger at its best is a way of seeing clearly, a form of emotional insight into the moral world.”
    ‘In Defence of Anger’ by Amia Srinivasan. Radio 4. 27.08.14

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Another brilliant piece Sir. How long before Gove becomes part time exec at Pearson? Trend is towards American style online marking by computer and the gradual erosion of professionals.


  3. I am going to print this off and hand copies to anyone who asks me about what this ‘government’ have had in mind about education all along. Some of us have predicted everything that you have mentioned here for five years and it’s ALL come to pass. I’m not ashamed to say that there have been moments when it’s all reduced me to tears – and I’m a bloke! Not sure whether that’s with frustration, anger or despair! Anyway, keep up the great work.


  4. Errr … No, UK applicants aren’t being denied University places by weak Overseas students. If they have ABB or better, they’re being snapped up, because those numbers are not restricted. If they have less, then they are not in competition for the same places – the Overseas places are over and above the numbers of Home studies that Universities are allowed to take.


    • That’s interesting. So you’re saying that overseas students never get lesser offers than English students for the same course ? That’s certainly not what the private school I mentioned is selling to its customers.


      • No, wouldn’t say that. Just that under the current regime, where most Home places are regulated, Home and Overseas applicants are not competing for the same places. Universities negotiate with the Funding Council over how many Home applicants they can admit and need to hit those targets. The Overseas numbers are an extra. Would also say that when a “lesser offer” is made it’s not usually lesser in terms of grades required but in terms of the leeway allowed for a near miss. But if youve already reached your target for Home students, you cant give them the same leeway. Overall, I think the idea of Home applicants with ABB being displaced by Overseas applicants who were only predicted, and achieved, EEE is not going to occur. Certainly not in STEM, where Home applicants are quite thin on the ground relative to places so they stand a good chance, if they apply, of getting a good set of offers. Only in Medicine do STEM applicants find it hard to get offers, and there the Overseas numbers are very strictly limited by government.

        Next year, on the other hand, University numbers are completely deregulated so, technically, all applicants will be competing for a single pot of places. Even then, though, significant numbers of Overseas applicants are only likely in certain, mainly Business related, subjects. They simply aren’t going into STEM in significant numbers.

        UCAS has most of the data you need to make sense of this.


  5. Yes. on the HE side, the international places are supernumerary as anonymous says above. Moreover, were international students crowding out UK ones, this is because of a market failure, not because of a market. If an HE place is “worth” more than £9k, but you can only charge £9k for it, then you’re clearly going to be incentivised or indeed have to cross subsidise that from international fees, or enrol international students at the expense of home ones to make your numbers add up. The “correct” response from a market perspective is to increase the cap on fees so that it covers the full costs of educating a home student, at which point universities will select on quality not price and they will recruit the best students, agnostic of where they come from

    Note that the above is phrased purely from an economic point of view, not a political / policy one, hence the quote marks – there may be (and I think there are) very good reasons for capping HE fees. But the economics hold whatever happens, and pricing below costs means that odd perverse things happen which you need to accept.

    I have fewer comments on your school point below because I’m afraid I think it’s simply mad and wrong (and indeed, an example of the type of pretty crazed ideology of which you accuse Gove et al)


    • A place for a foreign student can only be supernumerary if all English students with the same or better grades who wanted a place on that course are accepted on to it. So to make that argument, we’d have to accept that all foreign students have achieved the same or better grades than their English counterparts. I think your next paragraph actually does accept that this isn’t the case. So essentially, the case is made : English students are indeed being crowded out of our universities as a result of places being allocated to foreign students with lower qualifications, but higher bank accounts. I know that market believers don’t like it when the reality is phrased in such a way, but it doesn’t stop it being a reality, does it ?

      I think Jonathon, given the instrumental role of the policy exchange in supporting Gove’s marketization policies, I’d be genuinely astounded if you agreed with any of the above. We have very different philosophies and value systems.


      • Firstly, no, students can be supernumerary if we cap numbers of one sector and not another. Which is exactly what happens (or did until recently). We limit UK students (because they cost the exchequer money). Separately, we do not limit international students. They are supernumerary to the UK student cap. The grade issue is irrelevant precisely because we do not choose between a UK student and a international one – they are from different routes, if you like

        secondly, even if they were directly competing for the same places (which they aren’t) the fact that UK univrsities recruit them isn’t becuae of the market but because of a market *failure* – if I allowed you to sell a fixed number of products, but capped some of them below cost and allowed you to price the others where you wanted, you would logically sell more of the second – in fact if you didn’t you’d go out of business. Universities are no different. The correct “market” response is to let the price cover the full cost. As I say, I don’t agree with that in this instance, but you have to therefore accept odd consequences like lots of supernumerary Russian students subsidising UK students


  6. You mention your friend who was “forced by economic necessity” into teaching in a private school. Why do people believe that teachers in private schools always earn more than those in state schools? That may be the case in a few of the (high profile) independents, but I have taught in four private schools and have never earned more than my state school colleagues (in fact, slightly less!) I know that some people regard private school teachers as untouchables, but I wish this sort of unthinking prejudice was less prevalent.


    • I think you’ve jumped to conclusions a bit. He’d left teaching altogether and moved out of London. However, his family budget couldn’t manage on just his partner’s salary, so he had to go back to work, and the only school recruiting nearby was a private school. He didn’t go because it paid more -it paid less than his previous job. But needs must, when the devil farts in your teapot, as my gran used to say.

      I don’t claim private teachers get paid more than state teachers. You’ve just misunderstood a sentence.


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