The Logic of the Education Market Revealed in English State School

The ultimate in the logic of applying market principles to education is revealed in an English state school which colour codes its students by ability. It portends the future under a market driven education system.

Students at Crown Woods college in south London wear different colour ties and badges according to their ability. The highest achievers were purple. Students of different abilities are taught in separate colour co-ordinated buildings, play in fenced-off areas and eat lunch at separate times.

According to a report in The Guardian, all students at the school are streamed according to ability at age 11. They are ranked on the basis of their year 5 results, a teacher assessment and a cognitive ability test and put into one of three “mini-schools” on site.

The gifted and talented go to Delamere. They have purple badges on their smart blazers. The rest go to Ashwood, which wears blue, or Sherwood, which wears red. These two schools are more mixed ability, but they are still streamed into three tiers. Each mini-school has 450 students and functions independently. There are no shared subject departments.

The principle of the school says this is the only way to survive in the brave new world of market-driven education. He said it was part of the school’s plan to attract high achieving students.

I think it was Mrs Thatcher who said you can’t ignore the market, you have to respond to it. If we had a system that really recognised value added, it would be different. But we have a system that increasingly focuses on results. If you have a really hard-nosed view and want your school to succeed, this is what you have to do. We wouldn’t have attracted the students otherwise.

The segregation of students by ability within the school has generated much criticism. Many called it “repulsive”, “shameful” and “appalling”. One reader asked whether the lowest achieving students had to wear orange overalls as prisoners do. Another said:

Many times in history elitists have forced people to wear badges, hats, bells or other items of clothing that distinguished them from members of the dominant or elitist group. This headmaster is…. branding pupils in a way that disgusts us all.

Several comments posted on The Guardian website said that selection and segregation of students by ability stigmatizes lower achieving students, destroys their self-esteem and alienates them from learning. One said:

….segregating students through uniforms, break times and buildings can only foster feelings of resentment and distrust. Students in the lower schools will feel worthless while those in the higher school will feel superior.

Another observed:

Dividing them so rigidly and making them wear different uniforms may exaggerate differences or create ones that don’t exist. There is unlikely to be any significant difference in ability between the very brightest students in the “non-academic” mini-schools and the least able students in the “academic” mini-school – the line is likely to be drawn very arbitrarily. But teaching and socialising these students very differently could create a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The Guardian article noted that allocating students to different mini-schools based on ability had created much dissension and division between the schools. One girl aged 15 who attends Sherwood school says that students in the top school “look down” on students in the other ability schools like hers. She says arguments and fighting have broken out between different schools, which she says started when the students were told which block they’d be going into.

If you were friends with someone in Delamere, you are kind of enemies now, because you don’t want to talk to them. If you talk to them you kind of feel like you’re betraying (your school).
There was an argument in the school the other day and the girls were arguing between the fences … it just feels like we’ve been cut off from them.
They say if you’re gifted and talented you’ll be in Delamere, but there are other people in Sherwood and Ashdown that are gifted as well.

Other comments posted on the website said that segregation of students within schools limits educational opportunities for students. For example:

….to segregate in that way according only to academic ability is missing out on so many opportunities – for all the pupils – to learn to value others who may have different strengths and experiences.
In an integrated school pupils can move up and down between sets according to their maturity and how they develop. They are not marked out once and for all as bright or thick. Other skills, apart from the academic can be given prominence and children can be valued for their personal qualities as much as for their academic ability.

Another comment said:

The inconvenient truth is that there is no scientific rationale for this sort of approach – just deep rooted ideological bias and elitism. Do we really want to be remembered as the generation of educators that measured, sorted and divided our children or the generation that helped them all to learn and to develop whatever the starting point?

One comment cited research from the Institute of Education at the University of London which found that ability grouping had little impact on overall attainment and that the greater the extent of structured ability groupings, the greater was the degree of apparent stigmatisation of those in lower-ability groups.

Other comments noted that such segregation undermines social understanding and tolerance between people from different backgrounds. One person said:

Students of different academic ability should be able to mix in the yard or non academic classes. We have a responsibility to teach our students not just Maths and English but how to be better human beings

Another said:

In the real world you have to learn to work with and get on with people of all abilities – and you can only do that by learning to respect people of all abilities at school.

Many observed that segregation of students by ability is an inevitable outcome of high stakes testing and league tables. One said:

Interesting that the headteacher felt that the only way to improve grades was to attract a different clientele, rather than improve teaching and learning of the existing cohort.
This is what league tables lead to. This headteacher has, to his own discredit, played the system and, in the process of doing so, perpetuated it.

One person asked whether it was creating “corporatist-style apartheid in schools”.

The market determines the Good, and then people are partitioned off into their market-determined groups. Make sure the ‘dim’ pupils don’t aspire to anything above their station, groom the ‘bright’ ones to tread on their futile dreams. Seems like a perfect way to reproduce society intact, with a division and inequality of labour and of opportunity centred on that most unmentionable of topics, class relations.

One comment in particular summed it all up: “This is not how our state schools should be run.” But, it is where the logic of applying market principles to education takes us.

Trevor Cobbold

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