Education: 2. Schools, Marketisation and Parentocracy

Part 1 of this series looked at a range of general ideas about the structure and organisation of education in our society, through a broadly historical overview of educational development over the past 150 years. In part 2 the focus is on the structure and organisation of different types of school within the education system.

Over the past 25 years secondary schooling (broadly, 11 – 18) has seen a range of organisational changes we can illustrate by looking at different types of schools now available to parents in both the private and state-maintained sectors in England and Wales.

A Public School…

Private sector

According to Department of Education data (2018/19) There are around 2,400 Independent schools in the UK (out of a total of around 25,000 primary and secondary schools), funded by parental fees – Harrow, for example, charges nearly £42,000 for the 2020/21 school year  – and investment income. Around half of these schools also claim charitable status which gives them a range of tax reliefs and exemptions.

According to the Independent Schools Council (2015) these schools currently educate around 7% of the total school-age (5 – 16) population and 14% of post-16 students. Independent schools are allowed to set their own admissions policy (the major Public Schools, for example, operate some form of entrance exam selection process in addition to charging fees) and do not have to follow the National Curriculum (although most do, usually in a modified form).

The leading 10% of independent schools – those affiliated to the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference – are usually known as Public Schools, a label that reflects their origins as schools for the poor.


The majority of schools in England and Wales belong to a State sector, funded by central government with some local government input, to which all children between 5 and 16 are entitled to a free place. This sector is organised in a range of ways that reflect both selection and funding regimes.

My Old School…

Some schools are allowed, by law, to select pupils on the basis of religious affiliation (faith schools) and academic ability (grammar schools). Both types are covered by the National Curriculum. Specialist schools that prioritise in a particular curriculum area, such as sport or technology, and Academies are also allowed to select “up to 10%” of their intake by aptitude.

Following the 1988 Education Reform Act a diverse range of schools developed within the overall Comprehensive structure, each with a specific type of organisation, partly based on different types of funding (government, local authority and private), that has led to different types of general organisation.

City Technology Colleges are indicative of this change, funded by a mixture of central government and sponsorship money, heavily skewed towards the former. These schools are organised and managed independently of local authorities and are geared towards a science and technology curriculum.

Foundation schools were introduced by the School Standards and Framework Act (1998) to replace the grant-maintained schools established by the Conservative government’s 1988 Education Act. These schools are run by their governing body which directly employs teachers and sets its own admissions criteria. The land and buildings are normally owned by the school rather than a local authority.

Community schools are funded and run by local education authorities, who own the land and buildings and employ the teaching staff. These schools are open to anyone, although the local authority can use a set of admissions criteria at certain times, such as if a school is oversubscribed. In some areas, particularly but not exclusively, those who still maintain Grammar schools and selection at 11+, “Secondary Modern” schools have been rebranded as Community Schools in an attempt to downplay or avoid the social and academic stigma attached to such schools.

Community and foundation special schools cater for children withSpecial Educational Needs (SEN), such as physical disabilities or learning difficulties, where they cannot be accommodated within the general schooling framework.

Academies were originally introduced in 2002 by a Labour government as “publicly funded independent schools” located in “areas of social and educational disadvantage”; they either replaced schools which an Ofsted Inspection rated as “inadequate” (conversion to an Academy operated by a non-profit Trust, for example, later (2010) became a mandatory outcome of such a Report) or were introduced in areas where more school places were required. In broad terms, it’s usual to distinguish between two main types of Academy school:

Is now an Academy.

1. Sponsored: This type refers to a former LEA-maintained school that has been forcibly converted to an Academy through government intervention (following, for example, an Ofsted Report rating of the school as “inadequate”). This type is governed by a government-approved sponsor, hence the name.

2. Converter: This type refers to a former LEA-maintained, grammar or private school that has converted voluntarily to Academy status. There is no requirement for this type to have a financial sponsor or change of governance.

For both, capital costs (such as the school buildings) and running costs (teacher’s salaries, for example) are met by the government. However, an additional organising factor for most Academies is the role of sponsors.

Originally, for an investment of around 10% of the cost of creating an Academy (about £2.5 million) sponsors – generally a mix of private individuals, companies and charitable organisations – were given control over areas like the curriculum and school governance. While Academies broadly follow the National Curriculum they have greater freedom over how and what they teach. Williams (2008), for example, has noted how a small number of Academies sponsored by religious organisations teach “Creationism” / Intelligent Design theories alongside evolutionary theory in science lessons.

Over the past few years, however, individual Academy Schools have tended to coalesce around a relatively small number of Multi Academy Trusts (MATs) responsible for the running of more than one school. According to the Office for National Statistics (2019), for example, there are currently:

The future is…uhm…
  • 1,170 Multi Academy Trusts in England that manage at least two schools.
  • 29 MATs run 26 or more schools,
  • 85 MATs run between 12 and 25 schools
  • 259 MATs run 6 – 11 schools.
  • The majority of MATs, around 600, currently administer 5 or fewer schools.

    The 2010 Academies Act not only created the “policy aim” of allowing (or in many instances, forcing) state schools to become Academies, it also introduced the idea of Free Schools – non-profit, state-funded and maintained schools that were, nevertheless, independent of Local Authority control (although, to complicate matters, Local Authorities were eligible to sponsor free schools in partnership with “other organisations”, such as charities, universities, community and / or faith groups, independent schools, teachers, parents and businesses. The Local Authority could not, however, have “more than a 19.9% representation” on the school’s governing body).

    Free schools, while part of the state-maintained school system, have a number of organisational features that set them apart from other types of school. Free Schools can:

  • like their Church School counterparts, practice faith-based (but not academic) social selection. They can, for example, select pupils on the basis of their Christian or Muslim faith. Unlike their Church counterparts, new faith-based free schools are legally-bound by the “Faith Cap”: where such a school is oversubscribed, at least 50% of their places must be open to non-faith parents and children.
  • set their own pay and conditions for staff and are not bound by National agreements.
  • employ “non-qualified” teachers (i.e. teachers who do not have government-sanctioned Qualified Teacher Status (QTS), a post-graduate teaching qualification).
  • vary the length of both the school day and school terms.
  • ignore the National Curriculum – although they must offer a “broad and balanced” curriculum and are subject to the same standard of Ofsted inspection as other schools.
  • Two variations on the Free School theme – Studio Schools and University Technical Colleges – have added to the increasingly fragmented school structure that has developed over the past 10 years

    Although both were designed to take a 14 – 19 year-old intake, studio schools are relatively-small institutions catering for up to 300 pupils offering a project-based education: pupils combine academic classroom work with practical learning in “realistic working situations”.

    University Technical Colleges (UTCs) are similar in scope insofar as they offer a combination of academic subjects and technical qualifications. While they may be sponsored by a University, employers can also sponsor this type of school.

    As with their state-maintained Comprehensive / Academy counterparts the academic record of Free Schools is generally mixed. While some, such as the West London Free School and the Michaela Community School (also London based), have proven popular in terms of pupil intake and successful academically, others have struggled and, in some instances, either closed completely or been adsorbed into an existing Academy Trust. According to Schools Week (2018) around 50 Free Schools have suffered this fate although a further unknown number of such schools that planned to open subsequently did not, for a variety of reasons, ranging from a lack of suitable site to an inability to attract a viable pupil numbers.


    In the business world, the concept of “marketisation” refers to economic behaviour structured in terms of a market-place in which different companies compete against each other to provide goods and services of the highest possible quality at the lowest possible price to the consumer. In contemporary capitalist societies behaviour within such market places is generally overseen and regulated to varying extents by the State, but the latter is not directly involved in providing the goods and services purchased by customers.

    The ideological beliefs underpinning this particular view of capitalist economics is that competition within a marketplace between a variety of businesses is beneficial to both society and the individual in a number of ways:

  • Competition between, for example, service providers means they must take note of – and be responsive to – the needs and demands of consumers.
  • Consumers are given a choice as to which company they purchase from. Some consumers, for example, are willing to pay higher prices for what they see as a superior service while others are happy to pay much less for a lesser level of service.
  • Competition and consumer choice means companies must be responsive to what consumers want. The provision of a service, for example, is consumer-led – companies must compete to give the consumer what they want – rather than producer-led, where the consumer has to accept whatever the producer decides to give them.
  • From the above, it’s probably not too difficult to see where the concept of marketisation, when applied to education over the past 30 or so years, might be going: the ideological impetus has been towards the State, in the form of both successive Labour, Coalition and Conservative governments, taking a State-run institution (the education system) and subjecting it to what it perceives as some of the rules of the market-place – in particular the twin notions of competition between a variety of educational providers (or schools as they were formerly known) and the ability of consumers (in this instance, parents and pupils) to make informed choices about how and where their sons and daughters were educated.

    From the late 1980s onwards, starting with the New Right Thatcher Conservative government that came to power in 1979, we can identify the emergence of two apparently divergent organisational themes:

    On the one hand, the notion of school diversity – the development of different types of school, for example, serving different consumer interests and needs – coupled with the idea of parental choice. That is, the choices made by consumers would determine whether or not an educational provider would flourish – expand and attract increasing number of pupils – or fail.

    On the other, an increase in indirect government control over education whereby the State would continue to fund the overall education system but would also decentralise the supply of educational goods and services to a range of “independent suppliers” (in this instance a variety of non-profit charitable trusts).

    The basic rationale behind this particular version of educational marketisation was that the introduction of market principles into the education system would create a competitive situation that produced a range of benefits for both society and the individual at both the macro level of the State and micro level of individual schools.

    Macro Level: The State

    As you might expect from the above, the basic ideological turn over the past 25 years has been away from State provision to State regulation of education; rather than governments “providing education” through the economic ownership, political control and ideological direction of schools “from above” the role of government has been redefined. While it still provides the bulk of educational funding its role has evolved to one of the macro management of the education system as a whole. It sets the tone, for example, for the general range and scope of educational provision and oversees the day-to-day implementation of educational policy through independent agencies such as the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) school inspection service established under the 1992 Education (Schools) Act.

    In this respect the general political consensus over this period, covering Labour, Conservative and Coalition governments, has been for a redefinition of the role of the State, at both national and local level, one that involved a gradual withdrawal from school management and a focus on creating the conditions under which schools are able to manage their own day-to-day services and requirements, increasingly with the help and guidance from private companies or charitable trusts.

    Examples of increasing cooperation between government and commercial interests include the Building Schools for the Future programme (2005) and the Seed Challenge initiative that involved capital spending by government if the school could attract “matching funds” from non-government sources.

    As Wilby (2013) argues, the initial attempts to develop a marketised education system were not particularly successful:

    Under Thatcher, the attempt to end local councils’ grip on education began with the introduction of grant-maintained status, allowing schools to “opt out” of local authority control and receive funding directly from Whitehall. New schools, called city technology colleges (CTCs), were set up, also under government control. Thatcher hoped that most existing schools would choose “freedom” while, with the aid of private sponsorship, dozens of CTCs would emerge. In fact, fewer than 1,000 out of 24,000 schools opted out and only 15 CTCs were opened, at far higher cost to the Treasury than intended”.

    These structural changes in the way education was funded – directly by central government rather than locally through Education Authorities – and organised (the development of a quasi-market in educational provision through the emergence of different types of educational provision) arguably laid the groundwork for the more-profound type of marketisation that followed through the development of an “Academy system” involving a range of different types of school governed by non-governmental trusts. As Wilby suggests:

    The free schools and academies now being created are the direct successors of Thatcher’s grant-maintained schools and CTCs…all schools today, whether under local control or not, are governed by the principles of “open enrolment” and “local management” laid out in Baker’s 1988 Education Reform Act. Subject to physical limits, a school must admit any child whose parents apply; it then automatically receives funding for that child to spend as it wishes. Schools, therefore, operate in a quasi-market. They compete for customers and their business expands according to their perceived success, determined mainly by test and exam results published centrally. As in any market, customers look for trusted brands”.

    Micro Level: The School

    At the level of individual schools – or, as is increasingly the case, chains of schools organised into Multi Academy Trusts – the principle of marketisation aims to increase consumer choice through the development of different types of schools catering for the needs of different parents and children; the key claim here is that by devolving responsibility for school management to Headteachers and Independent governing bodies, flexibility and market disciplines are built into the organisational structure of education. Academically successful and popular schools should be allowed to expand, while “failing schools” – those that consistently receive poor inspection reports and fail to reach minimum GCSE pass rates – can be closed and replaced.

    While the economic constraints on schools are generally loosened through marketisation, the State has retained indirect control through a range of educational standards that must be met. All State-maintained schools, for example, teach the same National Curriculum and Key Stage testing (at 7, 11 and 14) is used to measure pupil performance on a national basis; these performance indicators are also used identify schools “failing their customers”; performance or “league” tables show how schools perform against both national benchmarks (such as the proportion of pupils gaining 5 GCSEs at A – C or how pupils perform in relation to the “English Baccalaureate”) and relative to similar types of school.

    Various forms of “value-added assessment” have also been introduced over the past 20 years, the latest of which, Progress 8 [] is a comprehensive (and, some have argued, largely incomprehensible) attempt to measure how schools perform against a range of measures, such as how far pupils progress academically from their starting-point of entry into secondary school to their “end-point” at GCSE. This is seen, by its proponents, as a more-accurate form of “school performance assessment” than simple GCSE results because it takes into account differences in pupil achievement when they enter different schools. A selective grammar school, for example, is likely to recruit higher-achieving pupils at age 11 than a non-selective Comprehensive school.

    More-recently, the Conservative government has also introduced controls over attendance and behaviour, part of which involves the expectation every school will have a uniform and code of conduct.

    The marketisation of education, therefore, is based on a philosophy of “improving schools”, defined in terms of their governance, exam performance and pupil behaviour, by increasing competition between and within schools. The role of government is to lay-down minimum acceptable standards of performance and to regulate competition between different suppliers. In the long-term, parents will be the ultimate arbiter of the success or failure of a school; popular, well-run, schools will attract increasing numbers of pupils (and funding), the best teachers and raise the overall level of educational provision and achievement in an area; unpopular, badly-run schools will be rejected by consumers because they have alternative, better-performing, schools from which to chose – or even the opportunity to start their own (Free) school if no other local school meets their requirements.


    While the government view of marketisation stresses its benefits, criticisms have focused on the simplistic notion that choice and diversity are always beneficial to individuals, communities and societies. Davies and Adnett (1999), for example, argue marketisation discourages curriculum innovation because of uncertainty about the consequences of failure. In a commercial world schools opt for the “safe option” – following the National Curriculum even where, in the case of Academies, Free Schools and Independent schools they are not compelled to do so.

    They also argue the burden of change falls disproportionately on schools with the least resources to innovate successfully. Competition for pupils rapidly gives way to an unequal struggle: successful schools attract more pupils, become oversubscribed and then select those most likely to achieve academic success (through “non-academic” devices such as parental and pupil interviews, entrance exams and qualification through “catchment area”: those who live nearest a school are more-likely to be accepted into that school. Schools in middle-class areas, therefore, are more-likely to attract and accept high-achieving middle-class pupils). Unsuccessful schools are confronted by the reverse spiral; fewer high-achieving pupils, fewer resources and poorer exam results leads to fewer high-achieving pupils, fewer resources and poorer exam results leading to…you probably get the picture).

    From this perspective competition actually inhibits innovation and improvement; schools simply develop ways of attracting a limited pool of “high ability, high motivation” pupils who guarantee good exam results and hence maintain or increase its reputation for “success”.

    A further in-built “failure of competition” is that once a formula for a “successful school” has been found, it becomes the blueprint for success; other schools simply try to follow the established blueprint rather than look for more innovative – and riskier – improvement strategies.

    More-generally, marketisation has come to embody a general “managerial philosophy” based on the assumption that how a school is run, in terms of organisation, discipline polices, academic targets and so forth, is the primary determinant of higher performance standards. Most of the available evidence, however, suggests that a school’s intake – especially its class and ethnic profile – is the main determinant of a school’s “success” or “failure”. Schools with high numbers of white and Asian middle-class pupils, in other words, are almost always the most successful when measured in terms of things like academic grades at GCSE or the number of pupils accepted into Universities, particularly Oxford and Cambridge.

    Finally, marketisation relies on the idea of informed consumers being able to select the school that’s right for their child from a range of different options. It rests, in other words, on parents choosing schools.

    There is, however, a body of evidence we can explore suggesting the reverse: the idea that schools choose parents.


    Marketisation has important consequences for the relationship between schools and parents – and while there is general political agreement that some form of parentocracy has developed, this idea has been subject to two very different interpretations.

    The first, mainly associated with New Right approaches, interprets parentocracy as parent power; consumers have greater freedom of choice and schools must compete against each other for their custom. They must be academically successful – or offer some unique selling-point, such as developing a child’s sporting abilities or acting talents, attractive to parents – because they need to continually attract new customers every year. Under this interpretation, therefore, parents are increasingly the most important and powerful actors in the educational arena and they drive individual schools towards successful academic outcomes. To be continually successful, therefore, schools must do things like seek-out the very best teachers and develop new and innovative ways of teaching.

    An alternative, more-complicated, interpretation holds that rather than parents selecting schools, schools select parents. Brown (1990), for example, suggests the ethos of the education system has changed over the past 50 years – away from notions of individual merit and achievement to one where the education of children conforms more to the wealth and wishes of parents than the efforts and abilities of pupils. There has been a shift, in other words, from meritocracy to parentocracy.

    Where the first interpretation of parentocracy treats parents as relatively undifferentiated – much the same in terms of their needs and resources – this interpretation sees parents as differentiated by social class and the resources (their cultural and social capital) they bring to bear on deciding their children’s education. Different types of children are, in other words, more or less attractive to different types of school.

    Parentocracy, under this interpretation, involves a hierarchical system where some parents – particularly the wealthy and socially well-connected – are effectively chosen by certain types of school while the majority, those who command few economic and cultural resources, are left to compete for entrance to lower status, lower-performing, schools. This represents, according to Brown, “a system whereby the education a child receives must conform to the wealth and wishes of the parents rather than the abilities and efforts of pupils”.

    An obvious example here is the ability to buy high status education. A major public school, such as Winchester or Eton, initially selects children by income and then by ability using entrance exams: a double form of selection that ensures they attract high calibre, highly-motivated students.

    Winchester College


    Registration fee: £375

    Conditional offer fee: £500

    Fees: £41,709

    Eton College


    Registration fee: £400

    Acceptance fee: £2100

    Fees: £42,500

    While this is a somewhat extreme example of “gaming the system” – parents finding ways of ensuring their children attend the most popular, highest-performing and highest status schools, Gewirtz et al. (1995) suggest middle-class parents in the state sector can also “game the system” by taking advantage of their higher levels of economic, cultural and social capital – one way being the purchase of houses within the catchment areas of a desired school.

    Conway’s (1997) research also found “parental choice of secondary education…helps to strengthen the advantage of the middle classes over the working class“; broadening the choice of schools has the unintended effect of clearly identifying those schools where children have the greatest educational advantage and allows middle class parents to use their economic and cultural resources to ensure these are the schools their children attend.

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