What does the sale of curriculum products between state schools say about our education system?

Here’s the pitch:

The current way that schools sell curriculum products to each other is absurd and speaks to an education system disconnected from its underlying moral purpose.

Across the country, schools with greater financial flexibility have created excellent curriculum resources with lesson plans, reading booklets, interactive presentations, etc. They’ve typically employed smart people to create this stuff, and the result is unsurprisingly impressive. The fact that these are not freely available to other schools is an indictment on the dysfunction of our seemingly zero-sum, competitive education system. These are not privately funded bodies we are talking about. Every one of these has used tax-payer money to create curriculum resources… and now they are sharing these resources at a price to other publicly funded bodies. This is an absurdly inefficient way of making use of the talent within the profession to benefit the nation’s children.

I totally understand why larger MATs and some local councils are doing this. We have all imbibed the idea of competition between schools to such an extent that it seems perfectly natural that the limited financial resources of the system should flow towards schools that have created curriculum resources. After all, think of the wonderful things they can do with the money they make. Think of the opportunities that they can provide to their students (and try your best not to think of the opportunities consequently deprived elsewhere).

I imagine the standard argument for the status quo is that it is just a sensible way for schools to pool their resources, and that surely this way is better than having every school create their own curriculum from scratch. Well, there is some truth in this argument. This way of doing things is definitely one rung up the ladder from the worst case scenario in which every small school’s history coordinator desperately throws something together in the couple of hours per term available for the job. But is this as far as our shared imagination extends? A short-sighted solution that further diminishes the open, collaborative spirit that defines the profession at its best? It’s genuinely a little disheartening that this way of doing things is supposedly the best solution that the powers that be could come up with. The whole thing screams systemic inertia rather than a thoughtful plan for enhancing outcomes for young people.

This isn’t some anti-capitalist rant. There are a lot of private companies making quality products for schools to buy, and the education system is all the better for their existence. However, private companies take risks with their own money. If these companies make poor decisions, they go bust. The tax-payer doesn’t then pick up the pieces and keep them afloat. I have no problem with private companies taking money from the public purse to provide a necessary service. It is the profit-seeking of public bodies that I find so disconcerting. If a curriculum product has been created with public money, and the product is so good that it would enrich the education of any children who use it, then what is the moral grounds upon which we limit its spread by charging schools for it unnecessarily? Once created, administration costs for the school that created it can be entirely avoided my making a downloadable version publicly available, ready for schools that might want some help in giving children the curriculum they deserve. Let me re-emphasise that this is not a critique of those institutions that have made these curriculum products. Their actions align perfectly sensibly with an overarching system that entirely lacks sense.

Essentially, the only other possible defence of this status quo that I can see comes from a superficial understanding of economics, specifically the idea that in every situation only the free competition of actors will allow money to be allocated where it can be put to best use. Forcing schools to operate more like businesses in this circumstance has one key problem: schools aren’t businesses and children aren’t customers. In the case of private companies, there is no moral imperative for us to ensure a fair distribution of resources and to ensure that every business thrives for the sake of its stakeholders. The opposite is true of schools. Some might argue that the schools who have created excellent curriculum products only invested the resources required to do so because they foresaw the subsequent financial recompense, and thus this competitive view of schools is necessary to promote innovation. Again, this speaks to our collective lack of imagination and the way in which a zero-sum, competitive interpretation of the school system has obscured our vision. There are other ways that this could have been achieved that didn’t so obviously disadvantage smaller schools with less financial flexibility. For example, a fund could have been made available from which schools could – following a successful application – take the required financial resources to create a curriculum, or components thereof, on the condition that this curriculum be made freely available, perhaps even with aspects that allow for schools to personalise it to their own school setting. If anyone doubts the practicability of such a thing, I have three words for you: Oak National Academy.

Recently, Solomon Kingsnorth (@SolomonTeach) wrote a typically interesting and provocative blog in which he suggested an alternative purpose for the government’s catch-up fund. I loved the idea, but I also wonder whether a small chunk of this money could buy the intellectual property to the various excellent primary curricula that already exist across the country so they could be made freely available. Don’t get me wrong; until it is explained to me why it is a stupid idea, I maintain that materials created by publicly funded bodies should be free for any school to use if they wish. However, in the absence of such sense, using some of the catch up fund in this way might be a decent alternative.

Simply put, there is no excuse for the current situation where a headteacher can honestly say, “I cannot afford that tax-payer-funded curriculum product, despite the fact it would improve the learning my school offers its students.”

We can do better than this, can’t we?

(I suspect what I have written above isn’t a particularly new set of thoughts. If, as is likely, someone has already made the argument with greater clarity, let me know, and I will happily link to their writing at the top of this blog-post. Thanks.)

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