Market Forces and Diversity: Some Evidence from the 14-19 Curriculum

Market Forces and Diversity: Some Evidence from the 14-19 Curriculum

Market Forces and Diversity in Local Schooling Markets:

Evidence from the 14-19 curriculum

Peter Davies*, Nick Adnett and Ann Turnbull,

Staffordshire University Business School

Paper presented at the British Educational Research Association Conference, Cardiff University, 7-10 September 2000


Using an economic analysis of market forces in schooling we investigate change and diversity in the 14-19 curriculum in three local education authorities in England. Specifically, we investigate the interaction between the policies of promotion of competition through comparison and the promotion of competition through specialisation. Using qualitative data, we focus on changes in the curriculum in three areas where schools had some freedom to choose: foreign languages, economics and business studies. We find evidence that local schooling market hierarchies influence curriculum change, operating chiefly through changes in enrolments. Curricula is also influenced by trends set by key schools and the occupation of niches which pre-empt choice by competitors. These processes were slowly developing and deepening as market changes exerted stronger constraints on school behaviour.

Key words: markets, curriculum, diversity

*Corresponding author:

Peter Davies,

Centre for Economics and Business Education,

Staffordshire University Business School,

Leek Road,



Telephone : 01782 294085

Fax 01782 747006



A key rationale for the introduction of schooling quasi-markets was the belief that schools would improve their response to parental preferences, leading to greater specialization between institutions (Chubb and Moe, 1990). This aspect of the consequences of market-based reforms of public schooling has been largely neglected, though early evidence from schooling quasi-markets in England did not support this expectation. One explanation for this failure was that schools at the top of local market hierarchies have little incentive, while those at the bottom have insufficient resources to specialise (Ahonen, 2000; Adnett and Davies, 2000). In this paper we examine theoretical analyses of the impact of competition on the curriculum and provide new evidence of its influence in local schooling markets. We conclude that these influences have developed and deepened as the market changes exert stronger, though uneven, constraints on individual school behaviour.

Quasi-markets and curriculum diversity

Encouraging competition between schools has been a major thrust of educational policy in many countries over recent decades. In England, since 1992, competition through comparison (Vickers, 1995) via league tables and open enrolment has focused attention on a school’s absolute level of academic performance. According to the market rationale, schools will seek to ‘satisfy a wide range of preferences by encouraging individual schools to differentiate their offerings to appeal to a particular set of clientele’ (Levin, 1991: 148). Dynamic competition between providers should result in innovation as well as diversity, leading to the conclusion that allocative and productive efficiency will improve in the long as well as the short-run (Tooley, 1993).

Conventional economic analysis suggests that there are three main incentives for schools to differentiate themselves from other schools in the local market (Adnett and Davies, 2000). First, it may be a method of increasing the resources available to the school. Specialist technology schools have benefited from a significant increase in their capital grant which they could invest in modern technology. Second, it provides a way of acquiring a label for the school which may have a number of advantages. The label may be associated in public perception with general notions of quality leading to an overall increase in applications for enrolment. It might, alternatively, signal desired distinctive characteristics to the type of parent sought by the school. The acquisition of a label can also pre-empt a rival school who might otherwise secure that niche in the local market. Third, if different aspects of schooling are in competitive rather than joint supply, then a school which specialises will make efficiency gains, as it no longer has to strive to meet so many conflicting demands.

However, research on the early years of the policy suggests that English quasi-markets have not led to an increase in the diversity of curriculum provision. Research on City Technology Colleges (Whitty et al. (1993), and later on Grant Maintained Schools (Fitz et al., 1997; Halpin et al., 1997), indicated that these schools had ‘reinvented’ traditional academic values. They were seeking to acquire credibility in the market place through imitating rather than challenging the established academic curriculum.

There are a number of plausible explanations for the initial lack of emergence of diversity between schools. First, research on parental choice provides little support for the assumption that parents desire a distinctive curriculum (e.g. Walford, 1996). It may be, however, that education is no different from other products and services in that tastes for difference may follow, rather than lead, differences created by producers. Second, a traditional curriculum may be reinforced because parents who are prepared to send their child to an ‘out-of-neighbourhood’ school are unrepresentative in their tastes and have a strong preference for a traditional academic education. Third, schools may resist pressure to change their curriculum due to the sunk costs in human capital. Teachers’ investment of time in their current expertise and resources may inhibit the speedy introduction of curriculum change, particularly in ‘unsuccessful’ schools who face particular resource pressures as they lose market shares.

These explanations suggest that the degree of diversity between schools may increase as they develop new ways of operating in markets, respond to the actions of other institutions and overcome transaction costs. Recent research in the UK (e.g. Woods et al., 1998) suggests that some schools may use ‘specialist status’ to reinforce a dominant academic position in a local market hierarchy. However, other schools may try to use specialist status as a way of compensating for their inability to compete, given their intake, in terms of absolute academic results. A conclusion of weak, but emerging differentiation between schools is consistent with evidence from other countries (Lauder et al. 1999 and Ahonen, 2000).

In England there is a tension between policies of competition through comparison (league tables) and specialisation,. Although both are promoted in the belief that schools will be encouraged to attend more closely to the wishes of consumers of education, they fail to address the likelihood of monopsony power in local markets. A specialist school creates a ‘niche’ in which it has no direct competitors. If parents are seeking a school that offers a distinctive kind of education then they may have no choice but to send their children to a local school where the average absolute standard of educational outcomes is relatively low. Moreover, if a school is successful in attracting a majority of the pupils in an area who are particularly adept or motivated towards a specialist subject then the other schools in the area will find it more difficult to sustain their efforts in this area of the curriculum. The impact of this on league table performance depends on peer group effects and the extent to which pupils adept (for example) at modern foreign languages are also strong in other curriculum areas.

Rationale for the focus on the 14-19 curriculum

There are both theoretical and institutional reasons for concentrating our analysis on the later years of compulsory schooling. Theory anticipates greater diversity in schools’ curriculum in local markets for older students (Brown, 1992). Parents of younger children will be uncertain of their future aspirations and needs and will initially seek a broad, unspecialised curriculum in order to leave options open. Older pupils who have formed a clear view of their future will be more certain of the education that they desire and will be more inclined towards specialist provision.

Our focus also reflects the freedom that English schools enjoyed to offer courses of their own choice. This freedom was greatly restricted by the introduction in 1988 of a National Curriculum. While recent changes in curriculum policy in England and Wales have increasingly reduced the scope of the National Curriculum, during the period in which this research was undertaken the 14-16 curriculum in state schools was tightly prescribed through the National Curriculum. Most schools only allowed students one or two ‘free choices’ of subjects in addition to the National Curriculum. Amongst the options for this choice were an additional modern foreign language and business studies. Schools were free to determine how many additional modern foreign languages students could choose between and whether they could choose business studies at all.

No such restrictions applied for the 16-19 age group. Schools were free to decide how many courses, which subjects and what type of course they offered. The number of courses offered was constrained by the size of the sixth form, but schools were also free to choose the extent to which they cross-subsidised small classes in the 16-19 curriculum through larger classes in the pre-16 curriculum. An indication of the degree of change in this part of the curriculum is found in the average number of times (7.5) a course in economics and business education began or ended in the sample schools in this study during the period 1985-1995. During a period when a compulsory curriculum was being introduced in the form of a National Curriculum this represents a phenomenal rate of change.


We researched curriculum change in 16 schools in three local schooling markets during the period 1988-1997. This sample includes a range of establishments that vary in size, growth, intake, governance and examination results. This variety increases the likelihood of detecting different processes at work, although we are not able to comment on the generality of any these processes. Characteristics of the schools are summarised in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Summary of the schools and colleges in the sample

School/College type / Location / Governance / Roll 1993 / % change in school roll 92-94/96-98 / Sixth Form Size 1993 / % change in sixth form size 92-94/ 96-98 / % students achieving 5 GCSEa A-C in 1993 / FSM eligibility (%) 1994 / FSM eligibility (%) 1998
1 / 11-18 / Rural comprehensive / LEA / 1335 / 11 / 197 / 30 / 68 / 6 / 5
2 / 11-18 / Rural comprehensive / LEA / 786 / 0 / 143 / 11 / 38 / 8 / 10
3 / 11-18 / Rural Comprehensive / LEA / 815 / 7 / 61 / 25 / 32 / 8 / 8
4 / 11-16 / Inner City comprehensive / LEA / 693 / 2 / 18 / 25 / 35
5 / 11-18 / Town comprehensive / LEA / 676 / -8 / 81 / 40 / 47 / 4 / 6
6 / 11-18 / Town comprehensive / GM / 986 / 24 / 147 / 21 / 65 / 5 / 4
7 / 11-18 / Town comprehensive / LEA / 765 / -10 / 87 / 62 / 37 / 10 / 11
8 / 11-18 / Town comprehensive / LEA / 877 / -4 / 115 / 20 / 49 / 7 / 10
9 / 11-18 / Town boys’ selective / Ind. / 1026 / 24 / 275 / -4 / 87 / 0
10 / 11-16 / Rural comprehensive / LEA / 535 / 12 / 39 / 9 / 10
11 / 11-18 / Town comprehensive / GM / 658 / -6 / 75 / 31 / 24 / 21 / 24
12 / 11-18 / Town comprehensive / LEA / 630 / -2 / 41 / 6 / 32 / 15 / 20
13 / 11-18 / Town mixed selective / Ind. / 274 / 7 / 49 / 40 / 90 / 0
14 / 11-18 / Town comprehensive / LEA / 988 / 14 / 129 / 24 / 54 / 6 / 7
15 / 11-18 / Town comprehensive / LEA / 1139 / 13 / 173 / 83 / 59 / 2 / 3
16 / 11-18 / Town comprehensive / LEA / 939 / 9 / 83 / 88 / 42 / 9 / 10


We focused upon the introduction and termination of courses and the reasons advanced for these changes. We included in our study changes in the availability to students of courses, even if these changes stopped short of complete termination of a course or the introduction of a new course. Curriculum changes were identified through semi-structured interviews with heads of department and senior managers. This provided an opportunity to check the accuracy of memories as to the timing of certain changes. Interviewees were asked to identify instances of the introduction or termination of courses in economics and business education (head of economics/business studies) or modern foreign languages (head of modern foreign languages) and to explain why these changes had been made. Interviewees were encouraged to explain whether they saw the causes they identified in each instance as typical of the operation of the school at that time. All interviews were recorded , transcribed and checked for veracity with interviewees. The data were coded according to nature of curriculum change (e.g. ‘introduction of GCSE Business Studies’), the status of the interviewee (e.g. Deputy Head) and the reasons cited for the change.

These data were scanned for comparison between schools in the frequency and nature of changes in the curriculum. This analysis provoked debate within the team over how the explanations used by interviewees might be most usefully categorised. This debate resulted in the following categories being employed: School history, staffing, ideology, national and local government policy, internal market forces and external market forces. School history was cited as a distinct factor through the legacy of inherited courses and culture. Staffing was cited as a cause of curriculum change through the opportunities created by untapped expertise of current staff, limitations on the pace of change resulting from sunk costs in human capital and changes initiated on the departure of staff. There were no cited instances of staff retraining in order to enable a curriculum change, although there were instances of re-training subsequent to a curriculum change. A number of interviewees cited ideological reasons for curriculum change in terms of their beliefs about the education that children needed. For example, curriculum changes were justified by two headteachers on the bases that ‘ schools should not be about training’ and ‘I despise statements suggesting that the purpose of educating people is to compete internationally. The purpose of education is education’. These three factors may be seen as representing the interest of the school. The effect of national and local government policy was evident in references to the National Curriculum, changes in public examinations and advice and support from Local Education Authorities. Market forces were cited in terms of competition between subject areas internal to the school and competition between schools. A minority of schools also referred to collaboration with other schools or colleges that enhanced their ability to position themselves in the market through the curriculum they offered.

We are conscious that inferences about the causes of curriculum change on the basis of these data are problematic. Staff may have been unwilling to disclose some of the thinking that influenced their decision making and reaction at the time, may have misunderstood the motivation of colleagues and their explanations may have changed to make them more consistent with their view of subsequent events. The processes that interviewees described were also complex and the categories outlined in the previous paragraph are inter-related. We attempted to address these problems by interviewing several members of staff in each establishment, and transcripts confirmed that the people selected were perceived by colleagues as key to decisions about curriculum changes in these subject areas. In focusing on specific instances of curriculum change the interviews encouraged answers that were rooted in events rather than opinion and the questions were open in the form of ‘why was that course introduced?’ with subsequent questions asking interviewees to develop their reasoning.

We divide the schools into three groups: small schools with declining rolls (5, 7, 11 and 12 in Figure 1), expanding schools with average to good academic results (1, 6, 9, 13 and 15) and other schools (2, 3, 4, 8, 10, 16). This categorisation reflects the hypothesis developed above: that the effect of the market on the curriculum will be different in ‘successful’ and ‘unsuccessful’ schools. We focus on two groups of schools: those with small and declining rolls and expanding schools with average to good absolute academic results. With each of these two groups of schools we describe the curriculum offered for modern foreign languages, economics and business studies, identify key changes in the curriculum and identify explanations for these changes.

The small, declining, schools each had a history as ‘secondary modern’ schools and were competing with other schools in a town. These schools either had the lowest or second to lowest rate within their town of percentage of 16 year olds gaining GCSE grades A*-C. They were located in areas with a below average SES status and headteachers in these schools believe that the pupils they are losing are middle class. One head illustrated her point of view by referring to a parent on the telephone ‘whose child had been rejected from school 15. She was very abusive, her basic line of complaint was that her son has to go here with all the “plebs” and she was talking in social class terms but she was also using examination results.’ Another senior manager said ‘ What has happened since we have had the two grant maintained schools, the skew of our intake has dropped to the bottom end. Because the brighter kids, their parents are choosing to try to get them into the two grant maintained schools. So we became very much the last choice’. Notwithstanding the evidence provided by Gorard and Fitz (2000), senior managers in these schools were adamant that secondary school intakes in their towns were becoming more polarised. The beliefs of these senior managers are consistent with Gibson and Asthana’s (2000) critique of Gorard and Fitz. A polarisation effect might also occur within a school as mixed ability teaching is replaced by setting. Reay (1998) identified a quasi-market pressure for schools to introduce setting as a result of parental beliefs about the effects on academic attainment.

Small, declining, schools offered restricted opportunities for learning modern foreign languages. For example, 14-16 year old pupils in one school were required to study a modern foreign language for only one period a week and chose whether to opt for an additional lesson a week to study for a GCSE in the subject. Two of these schools no longer offer pupils an option of studying more than one modern foreign language in the 14-16 curriculum. Each of the schools described how their modern foreign languages curriculum had become more restricted over the period and one had just reached the point of no longer offering these subjects to 16-19 year olds. Two of these schools do not offer any economics or business subjects in the 14-16 curriculum although one was in the process of introducing a range of GNVQ courses. Neither of these schools employed a business specialist, relying on collaboration with other schools to offer business related subjects in the 16-19 curriculum. The other two schools in this category changed their provision for economics and business studies considerably during the period studied. Both began the period offering economics as an academic subject for 16-19 year olds and commerce and typing for less able 14-16 students. Both introduced vocational business courses in their 16-19 curriculum as a key to their efforts to increase sixth form numbers, both changed their 14-16 curriculum provision to business studies and ceased offering economics. In both of these schools no year passed without at least one curriculum change in these subjects and at the end of the period a higher proportion of 14-19 students in these schools included an element of business education in their programme of study.