Marketisation of Education

Should education operate on market principles? Who should own and control schools?

Marketisation of Education Marketisation of Education

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Table of contents

    We can answer these by looking at the policies presented by the UK governments of the late 1970s and onwards.

    • We will study marketisation policies in sociology, applied to education.
    • We will define marketisation in sociology and how it has impacted education.
    • We will go over the policies of marketisation enacted by different UK governments over the past few decades.
    • Finally, we will examine the effects of marketisation in terms of the advantages and criticisms of marketing in education.

    Marketisation policies in sociology: education

    Marketisation policies are studied in sociology because they significantly impact education. They have shaped our education system for decades, and it is essential we understand them and their effects.

    First, however, let's clarify what we mean by marketisation in sociology.

    What is marketisation in sociology?

    What do we mean by marketisation, and what is its relevance to sociology? Simply put, marketisation in sociology refers to an industry's exposure to market forces.

    In the 1970s, a set of political beliefs arose in the UK, led primarily by Margaret Thatcher's Conservative Party. This ideology sought to increase competition and among other things, to privatise many areas of industry. It built on free-market economics, which believes in reducing government intervention in the economy.

    One area which was marketised was education. The ideology itself became known as the New Right perspective. This explanation will focus on the marketisation of education, and policies which prove its existence.

    Since the 1970s, the Conservative party has strictly kept to its New Right ideology. This can be seen in education policies enacted between 1979 and 1997, and again from 2010 onwards. New Labour governments from 1997 onwards also adhered to marketisation policies, furthering the marketisation of education. But, what is the marketisation of education?

    What is the marketisation of education?

    The marketisation of education refers to an educational policy trend pushed by the New Right which encouraged schools to compete against one another.

    The process of running educational institutions like businesses began with the Conservative government and has been either continued or largely left unchanged since. Scholars of sociology are interested in the nature of these changes as well as the impacts they have had on education and wider society.

    Marketisation of Education, Children sitting in a classroom engaging with a teacher, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Education has become increasingly commercialised since the late 20th century.

    Marketisation of education by Conservatives

    Most of the initial reform was spurred on by the party's Education Reform Act of 1988, which introduced Key Stages, the National Curriculum, and League Tables. We will explore these features in greater detail, along with the introduction of Ofsted and formula funding.

    The National Curriculum in education

    Introduced in England and Wales in 1988, the National Curriculum led to standards being drafted for a set of subjects. It is difficult to think of a time before the National Curriculum.

    Before its implementation, however, teachers of some subjects would decide themselves what to teach and how it would be taught. Therefore, curriculum programs were devised to try and standardise teaching, so it did not rely on the knowledge and capabilities of individual teachers.

    The National Curriculum aimed to formalise educational standards, which in turn would allow for standardised testing. In September 1989, elements of the newly devised National Curriculum began to be taught.

    The National Curriculum was later revised in 2014 to allow for a more rigorous basis of testing. The new version is slimmed down, but still teaches children the basics of each subject. In maths, children will be expected to know more at a younger age and in English, more Shakespeare was added to the curriculum. The new computing curriculum requires students to learn to code.

    The School's Council History Project

    The Schools Council History Project was established in 1972 with the aim to influence the way history was taught to students across the UK. They developed a framework for the education of pupils aged 5-11, but their impact was felt through the entire education system.

    The Humanities Curriculum Programme

    The Humanities Curriculum Programme attempted to create an integrated humanities curriculum before the establishment of the National Curriculum.

    The introduction of league tables in schools

    League tables were introduced by the Conservative government in 1992 in order to publicly record which schools were performing well. They also brought focus to underperforming schools. Published annually, league tables are largely created from students' exam results. In 1996, primary school league tables were introduced under the same rationale.

    These tables allowed British schools to be directly compared, thus increasing competition. A secondary school would be deemed to be underperforming if less than 40% of students attain five A*-C GCSEs. By treating parents as consumers and providing them with more information, the Conservative government hoped they would make more informed choices and enrol their children in only the best-performing schools.

    However, over time, worries have arisen as to whether schools have found ways around not meeting the threshold - e.g. by placing less academically gifted students on B-TEC or vocational programs. The General National Vocational Qualification (GNVQ) vocational program is worth 4 GCSEs at grade C or above.

    Also, league tables have caused concern about excluding students who underperform, instead of giving them extra support to help them improve. Heads of schools and admissions have argued that students with weaker academic records are often barred from high-performing colleges as they do not want their grade averages potentially affected.

    The introduction of Ofsted to assess schools

    When John Major replaced Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister, he called for reform of the school inspection system to improve educational standards across the UK. Ofsted was born from that call.

    Ofsted is an abbreviation for the Office for Education Standards, Children's Services and Skills. Under the Education Act of 1992, passed by Major's government, a common inspection framework was created for Ofsted workers, and schools were to be examined every four years.

    When schools were reviewed by Ofsted, they were given a rating of:

    • Grade 1: Outstanding

    • Grade 2: Good

    • Grade 3: Requires Improvement

    • Grade 4: Inadequate

    In 2001, Ofsted was commissioned to also inspect daycares and childminders. In 2007, this was extended to all adult learning organisations.

    Formula funding for schools

    Since 1988, schools have received funding for the number of students in enrolment, known as formula funding. Under-subscribed schools would close over time as they could not raise the adequate amount of capital to remain open.

    Marketisation of Education, Child sitting in a room looking into the camera, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Marketisation sought to make parents consumers.

    Privatisation and marketisation in education policy

    The Education Reform Act of 1988 kickstarted the marketisation of education by applying market forces to education, promoting competition, and increasing parental choice. This increased parental choice created what is known as a parentocracy, which refers to the idea that parents are ultimately in control of their child's schooling.

    This process of marketisation went hand in hand with privatisation.

    Privatisation is when state-owned services become controlled by the private sector.

    In sociology, we understand privatisation as something occurs within education - this is what Ball and Youdell (2007) called endogenous privatisation. On the other hand, privatisation that occurs outside the scope of education is called exogenous privatisation.

    Endogenous privatisation in education

    Things that would count as endogenous privatisation include making schools compete as though they are businesses. For instance, formula funding by rewarding schools for attracting students and awarding salaries that are related to performance.

    Exogenous privatisation in education

    One example of Ball and Youdell's (2007) exogenous privatisation would be private companies being given contracts to build and maintain state-owned schools.

    Marketisation of education by New Labour, 1997-2010

    Tony Blair's New Labour government, elected in 1997, continued the trend of marketisation of education started by the Conservatives. They clearly emphasised that education was their new top priority.

    Under New Labour:

    • city academies were introduced,

    • the education system was diversified through the growth of specialist and faith schools, and

    • tuition fees were established.

    Introduction of city academies in education

    These institutions were originally called city academies, but New Labour quickly dropped the term 'city' to allow schools in rural areas to also make the change.

    Academies are publicly funded schools that operate outside the control of local authorities. They are under government control and independent co-sponsors can provide money and oversee the school. This initiative aimed to give public schools greater autonomy, enabling them to boost innovation and raise the standards of the school. The first wave of academies targeted struggling schools.

    Growth of specialist and faith schools in the UK

    Moving away from the one size fits all model, New Labour allowed for schools to apply to specialise in one of 10 categories. They also expanded faith or religious schools. Until 1997 in the UK, only Jewish and Christian faith schools were funded.

    However, it must be noted that there have been questions as to whether segregating children via faith in schools is wise. Teachers are also chosen based on religion in faith schools.

    Marketisation of Education, Empty desks in a classroom, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Schools have become more diverse in terms of focus and specialisation in recent years.

    The introduction of university tuition fees in higher education

    Before the 1997 General Election, Blair promised he had no plans to introduce tuition fees for university education, which were exempted for the majority of full-time students.

    However, in 1998, New Labour did indeed introduce tuition fees for the entirety of higher education. This means-based system meant students had to pay an amount calculated through their parent's salary. In 2003, university tuition fees were raised to £3,000.

    Marketisation of education by the Coalition (2010-2015)

    In 2010, the UK experienced its first coalition government in decades with the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats forming one regime. This coalition government continued marketising education.

    Expansion of academies in education

    The Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition wanted to oversee an expansion of academies, with new academies opening on a yearly basis. Under New Labour, low-rated schools were initially forced to become academies in an attempt to raise standards.

    This pathway involved finding a sponsor and stakeholders happy to aid in overseeing the function of the institution. These are now known as sponsored academies, but a law change now means academies no longer have to also seek sponsor funding.

    The Academies Act 2010 enabled more schools to become academies. Schools and colleges with an outstanding rating from Ofsted were instantly preapproved to become academies, even if they did not want to become academies. This gave them a pathway to becoming what is known as converter academies.

    Academy chains also saw schools become involved in managerial oversight, helping other schools raise their standards. All academies are free to not follow the National Curriculum, pay staff as much as they like, and have greater powers over their budgets than schools managed by local authorities.

    Introduction of free schools in the UK

    Free schools, like academies, are locally funded but not run by local authorities. In September 2011, 24 free schools opened in the UK. Initially, parents or teachers could open free schools, but this was later removed.

    Pupil premium for disadvantaged students

    Introduced in 2011, the 'pupil premium' was additional funding for disadvantaged youths to close the gap between them and their wealthier peers. In 2020-21, just over 2 million children were eligible for some form of funding (Education & Skills Funding Agency, 2021).

    Schools receive £1,345 for every primary school student who receives free school meals (FSM), and £955 for every secondary student eligible for FSM. They are also given payment if a student has received FSM in the last 6 years.

    Increased tuition fees in higher education

    One of the most notable changes made by the coalition government was the increase in tuition fees, trebling the cap on university course fees from £3,000 to £9,000 a year. This sparked numerous student protests across the country as the Liberal Democrats had won votes promising to scrap tuition fees.

    Impact of marketisation of education

    Marketising policies have had several wide-ranging impacts on education. Miriam David (1993) argued the marketisation of education moved the power away from schools and to the parents, creating a parentocracy. This is a common view in sociology.

    Advantages of marketisation of education

    Let's explore just how some advocates say marketisation has benefited parents.

    Increased choice of schools for parents

    Sociologists suggest that a greater variety of schools means that students have more options and access to education than before. Parents can now choose from private schools, academies, faith schools, and free schools for their children.

    More private investment in education

    There has been an increase in private investment in education, particularly in academies. This can mean more funding and better resources, but also means some schools function as businesses.

    Rising university attendance

    Each year sees record numbers of students attending university. For instance, the year 2022 has seen a rise in the number of 18-year-olds intending to go to university. This is reflected in an increase in the number of school-leavers applying for undergraduate courses and meeting the January 2022 deadline.

    Improved GCSE and A-Level pass rates in education

    More students from wider demographics are scoring highly on their final exams, meaning they have better chances of succeeding in higher education. In 2018, for example, the GCSE examination was made more difficult. GCSE pass rates still rose.

    A similar thing could be seen during the COVID-19 pandemic when it was believed students' learning would have been impacted through the virtualisation of education. GCSE and A-Levels saw record results, which left some students questioning whether their grades would be taken seriously.

    Criticisms of marketisation of education

    Marketising education has, unsurprisingly, been a controversial decision. It has come under criticism for several reasons.

    Social class and the myth of parentocracy

    In sociology, we might examine the strengths and limitations of policies in terms of their impacts on various social groups. For instance, some sociologists suggest that parentocracy has not been the reality for all groups in society - educational options are still dictated by social class.

    Stephen Ball (2003) argued that the middle class has largely benefitted from policies of choice and competition. Their social capital, for example, allows them to use their networks for support (e.g. writing a good personal statement). Ball calls these middle-class parents 'skilled choosers'.

    On the other hand, working-class parents are 'disconnected choosers' as they often lack these forms of social capital. Also, schools will often only take students from certain catchment areas. With the best schools being in the wealthiest areas, working-class students can be disadvantaged.

    Deregulation and lack of qualifications in education

    Whitty (2013) argues the changes brought in by academies and free schools e.g. the ability to hire teachers who have no teacher-training qualifications, will actually contribute to the deregulation of the profession.

    He believes that the traditional route to becoming a teacher - going to school and attaining good grades before gaining a teaching qualification at university - is being distorted with alternative routes. There are now pathways for other qualifications competing against universities.

    Whitty worries that private companies may become enticed by profits and develop routes themselves, which may impact the rigour and quality of the qualifications.

    Selective enrolment in education

    Rather than accepting all students, the marketisation of education means that schools can now be selective in their enrolment, meaning that many students will now be excluded.

    While admissions could solely focus on academic criteria, they are likely also to include interviews and extra admissions tests. This puts more pressure on students and makes the whole process more stressful. The enrolment process can also differ from one borough or county to another.

    Hyper focus on 'teaching the test' in schools

    With schools training students to get the best grades in a number of qualifications such as SATs, GCSEs and A-levels, there seems to be a focus on 'teaching the test'. This refers to when a curriculum focuses on preparing students for a standardised test rather than simply bestowing knowledge and cultivating their interests.

    International testing in education

    The Programme for International Student Assessment, PISA, is an international assessment that measures capabilities in reading, maths, and sciences, with several voluntary tests.

    It has shown that marketising policies have not been uniformly successful in improving performance. The UK ranks moderately but has seen some falls in the ranking, e.g. with maths. It should be noted, though, that the UK performed well in the 2019 PISA.

    Marketisation of Education - Key takeaways

    • The marketisation of education refers to an educational policy initially pushed by the Conservative New Right which encouraged schools to compete against one another.

    • The Education Reform Act of 1988 passed by the Conservatives introduced the National Curriculum, league tables, the introduction of Ofsted, and formula funding.

    • The 1997 New Labour government continued the trend of marketisation of education started by installing city academies, diversifying the education system, and establishing tuition fees.

    • The 2010 coalition government persisted in marketing education through expanding academies, introducing free schools and pupil premiums, and rising tuition fees.

    • The marketisation of education has had many impacts, such as increased choice and improved academic performance, but has also been criticised, e.g. for disadvantaging working-class students.


    1. Education & Skills Funding Agency. (2021). Pupil premium: Conditions of grant 2020 to 2021.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Marketisation of Education

    What is marketisation?

    Marketisation refers to an industry's exposure to market forces. 

    What are marketisation policies?

    Marketisation policies encourage competition and increased investment. Typically, they reduce government interference in an area. 

    Which sociological perspectives favour marketisation?

    Functionalists favour the marketisation of education.

    How does marketisation affect education?

    Parents can now choose from private schools, academies, faith schools, and free schools. With more schools opening, parents will have more choices. There is also more private investment in education than ever before. 

    What is the difference between privatisation and marketisation?

    The processes of marketisation and privatisation go hand-in-hand. However, privatisation can occur without marketisation - services can become increasingly privatised without the goal of market competition or participation in mind. 

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