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‘Tragedy of the commons’: how the government abandoned the pursuit of teacher quality

Chris Husbands

The ‘tragedy of the commons’ is a well-known tenet of public, and especially environmental policy. The ‘commons’ refers to a resource shared by many individuals who can use a portion of it for their own benefit. The tragedy is that in the absence of effective regulation, each individual will tend to exploit the commons to his or her own advantage. Under this state of affairs, the commons are depleted and eventually ruined: everyone acts in their own interests and the outcome is destructive for everyone. But the problem is that if the commons are going to be used up, whoever uses most stands to benefit the most. The application of the ‘tragedy of the commons’ to environmental challenges is obvious.

The evidence is clear that the best education systems prioritise the recruitment of the most promising graduates into teaching, train them well and build a culture of lifelong professional learning

Securing the supply of good teachers has some similarities to the tragedy of the commons. There are some underlying theoretical parameters. We can use demographic (how many pupils are there going to be in schools) and labour market data (how many teachers will retire or leave) to work out how many new teachers are needed. Training too many teachers has always been seen as a waste of resources and talent – although not everywhere: Ontario has been systematically over-supplying the market for years. Training too few teachers is very bad policy for obvious reasons. All this is complicated because the supply of potential teachers is larger in some subjects – English, History, PE – than in others – Mathematics, Physics. The evidence is clear that the best education systems prioritise the recruitment of the most promising graduates into teaching, train them well and build a culture of lifelong professional learning. So the policy challenge involves lining up demand planning, supply management and training structures, and then ensuring that training providers are incentivized to recruit the most promising potential candidates.

Somewhat bizarrely, the English government has now adopted a policy on new teacher supply which throws out any incentive to schools and universities to recruit the best candidates. It’s a remarkable, wholly counter-productive policy. There has been a major shift in market management this year. In previous years each university, school-centred consortium or school direct provider was given a specific allocation of places: a provider might be allocated twenty History places, with cash penalties for over-recruiting. For the 2015/6 recruitment cycle the system has been de-regulated: there are no allocations for individual providers, although there is a planning total for the whole country. When this national target is reached in each subject or phase, all providers will be told to stop offering places through the online recruitment portal.

There are two reasons for this change. The first makes some sense: given that some providers are better than others in recruiting (good) candidates, liberalizing the market appears to be logical. It makes no sense, for example, for the supply of Mathematics teachers to be weakened if one provider does not meet its targets but a second provider must stop recruiting when it meets targets even though it has capacity for more trainees.

The second reason makes less sense. Government is now essentially running two teacher training systems: one involving university-led providers and one involving School Direct providers. It has set a minimum proportion of overall training to be undertaken by school-led providers, but the recent experience has been that higher education led partnerships for initial teacher training have been more effective than schools at recruitment. The axe allows government to switch off one route whilst protecting the other – although it does all depend on an efficient and responsive IT system (what could possibly go wrong with that?)

In practice, what the new system does is to push providers to the tragedy of the commons. It incentivizes providers to race to recruit – to use up the supply as quickly as possible: not to recruit the best candidates but to recruit the first candidates to apply. Given that the axe will fall on recruitment not based on your own strategy but on what others do, the risks of not recruiting quickly far outweigh the risks of discriminating more carefully. No other graduate employer would encourage its assessors to recruit the first people to apply.

None of this makes very much sense. One of the lessons of the tragedy of the commons is that you can achieve one outcome, but achieving that makes it more difficult to achieve other things: you can prioritise individual use of the resource or you can prioritise sharing of the resource but you cannot do both. I find it difficult to believe that government has seriously decided to abandon teacher quality as a policy priority but essentially that is what it has done by signalling so strongly to providers that they should recruit from the front of the queue rather than on the basis of quality.


This text was first published on UCLs IOE blog at: