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Study Notes

Classic Texts: Ball, Bowe & Gerwitz "Market Forces & Parental Choice" 1994


Last updated 23 Apr 2019

A number of education policies and reforms, especially those brought in as part of the 1988 Educational Reform Act, looked to create a market in state education. The idea was that parents would have more choice and control over their children's education. Ball, Bowe & Gerwitz investigated to see what impact the policies were having.

One of the key marketization policies introduced in 1988 was league tables. This was the publication of how schools compared with each other in terms of the results pupils were getting - not just A Levels and GCSEs but also the new SATs. The idea was that parents could look at the league tables and make an informed choice about which school their children should attend. While school locations and the number of places meant that parents did not have complete freedom of choice, the aim was to make schools compete for parents and strive to keep improving their standards and therefore improve their position on the league tables and attract more pupils (and with that, more funding).

Ball, Bowe & Gerwitz identified a number of problems with this approach. First, they identified the pressure that league tables, and the associated formula funding, put on schools and how that pressure impacted on children's education. Some schools responded to the pressure by focusing their attention on the most able children, which arguably disadvantaged lower-ability pupils. Many schools reintroduced policies of banding or streaming in order to best identify the pupils who would achieve and help the league table positions. Ball, in his earlier research about Beachside Comprehensive, had concluded that streaming had a negative effect on working-class pupils.

The researchers concluded that marketisation benefited middle-class children, whose parents took advantage of the system to reinforce their advantages. They found that schools contributed to this situation as they felt that becoming an increasingly middle-school would help them move up the league tables. Schools would also engage in cream skimming and silt shifting to try and get the best pupils in their school and pass on lower ability pupils elsewhere. As such, working-class pupils and some minority-ethnic groups found themselves in the undersubscribed and under-funded schools lower down the league tables. The class divide that existed under the old grammar school system was recreated in the comprehensive system.

Supporters of marketisation would point out that it was parental attitudes at work here rather than the policies or system, and middle-class parents should not be penalised for (apparently) taking a greater interest in their children's education. Some would also point out that policies since 1994 have gone some way to resolving these issues, such as the Pupil Premium that ensures pupils from low-income households carry more funding and schools can invest that money into activities that benefit those pupils.

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