Diverse and disparate: regulation, accountability and market forces in education

by Professor Stephen Ball FBA

21 May 2015

I recently chaired the second British Academy ‘Perspectives on Education’ seminar. In this seminar, we debated the shifting landscape of regulation across the educational spectrum, and participants shared their knowledge and experience of schools all the way through to universities. The seminar was aptly named: ‘disparity’ seems to characterise English education at the moment.

This poses a multidimensional problem at the heart of the education system. Indeed, our first speaker, Professor Jenny Ozga FBA, challenged us to consider whether there is even a system of English education at all, or rather, as an interviewee in a piece of research she has conducted put it, a ‘system of systems within a system’.

This lack of consistency, and a perceived incoherence, was common to all rungs of the educational ladder. Starting with schools, and drawing on comparative research across nations, Professor Ozga identified ways in which the English education system is an outlier. She noted how “the commitment to diversity, the engagement with the market in education, the placing of responsibility on individual families and the apparent stepping back of the state and consequent disparity in England” make it stand out from international comparators. Unlike other countries, England lacks an overarching principle enshrined in law about what its education system should provide.

It was useful to hear the perspective of the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual) on that point, and Glenys Stacey, CEO and Chief regulator, highlighted the competing quasi-regulatory demands made on qualifications and assessment that Ofqual has to balance. Exams need to map onto a curriculum with learning aims and a sense of progression; they need to provide a means of reliably ranking students and their performance; and simultaneously they need to be able to make schools accountable. This places a heavy burden on qualifications as a regulatory tool.

Disparity applies to the higher education sector as well. Professor Peter Scott provided an overview of the significant changes that have affected the higher education sector in England in recent years. He noted something of a paradox. In the past, universities have enjoyed significant funding from the state, and in many ways been left to their own devices – the least regulated part of the education ‘system’. This period of minimal accountability has shifted over time to one in which universities are subject to diverse regulatory interventions, despite being less directly reliant on the public purse. There is, of course, still no overarching regulatory framework for universities.

If we assume that a diversified system is preferable, Professor Scott questioned whether market systems were best for engineering that diversity: he pointed to the significant politically driven changes to the university system in the 1960s following the Robbins report. The creation of new universities has radically altered the higher education landscape in a way that the market changes post-Browne review do not (yet) seem to have achieved.

Taking the speakers’ contributions together, a common thread was the frequency of experimentation. Academies might be seen to be a genuine experiment – similarly perhaps the radical changes to the university sector in the 1960s driven by political change (Robbins). As participants noted, we could have considered in more detail the FE sector, where policy experimentation has occurred on a vast scale.

One might also point to artificial boundaries. As Professor Scott noted, currently there is a firm boundary between FE and HE, which is regrettable to the extent that there are common issues that affect both sectors and that could be more sensibly dealt with in a holistic way. Equally, another participant noted that early year’s education might provide a good example of the kind of regulatory requirements that need to be considered. Indeed, what hasn’t been achieved in the regulation that exists is a means of linking up different stages of the education system and ensuring that they complement and feed into one another.

Similarly, there is limited linkup between the local, regional and national levels of regulation. This is perhaps most vividly obvious in the current changes in schools regulation wherein local authorities have no power to intervene in Academy schools. Concerns about these institutions need to be taken up directly with the central Department for education. However, as Jenny Ozga notes, the Department itself has “no formal mechanism to intervene with academy trusts or hold them to account, other than through working relationships between senior officials and academy sponsors”.

It will be interesting to see if the new government tackles this disparity in the education system and if so which bit it will choose to focus on – the lack of an overarching framework in HE, the issue of local accountability or will it simply leave the system to adapt according to market forces?

Professor Stephen Ball FBA is Karl Mannheim Professor of Sociology of Education at UCL’s Institute of Education. His main areas of interest are in education policy analysis and social theory. He sits on the British Academy’s Higher Education Policy Development Group.

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