There is no marketplace in British education

Philip Booth in the Catholic Herald on Archbishop Nichols' lecture on education

The Church should not be afraid of a true ‘Educational Market Place’

Archbishop Vincent Nichols' lecture on education last week is certainly to be welcomed. It points to a number of disturbing features of education in Britain which we would like to see reversed.

However, it is wrong for the Archbishop to argue, as he did, that these are the trends of an ‘educational marketplace’. Specifically, he said: ‘once this [approach to education] really takes hold, then education has truly entered the marketplace and its entire ecological system is threatened with pollution…In effect what is happening is that the patterns of the market are flooding over all aspects of life and we are finding ourselves considered as nothing more than consumers and suppliers’.

Yet there is no real concept of a market in the British education system. There was something a little closer to a market (especially in Scotland) until 1976 when direct grant schools were abolished and those schools I suspect, were much less utilitarian than today’s state controlled schools operating completely outside the market economy.

There is currently much discussion about how schools should be funded and an imprecise use of terms in other contexts could potentially cloud that debate. One aspect of that debate is whether schools could be much freer from state control yet still be state funded and possibly be profit-making (as in Sweden).

Catholic schools could sit very happily in such a ‘marketplace’ for education in the same was as fair trade products (of which I am sceptical, but that is another matter) sit in the marketplace and friendly societies in the 19th century sat in the marketplace for welfare insurance. The market does not have to be driven by materialistic or narrowly instrumentalist considerations.

The trends in education that the Archbishop rightly criticises are instrumentalist, utilitarian and materialistic. But these values can take hold in a society with no market- the former Soviet Union, for example.

There is a genuine danger that when language is used so imprecisely we will see headlines reading ‘Archbishop attacks market trends in education’ and so on which then cloud an important debate which could actually lead to the liberation of schools from the utilitarian straitjacket that is being imposed on them by government.

See also
Catholicism and Capitalism lecture at Westminster Cathedral and
Catholic Social Teaching and the Market Economy