Educational innovation: debunking the public vs private myth

4 min read

The following are some reflections on Mariana Mazzucato’s The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking the Public Vs Private Sector Myths in relation to public or state-funded education.

Innovation is a necessary part of human activity. It is about developing new systems and approaches to existing and evolving challenges of life. Innovation is necessary in schools and school systems. However, current economic and education policy, in England, suppresses innovation. This will have long term effects on the educational outcomes of learners currently in the system. It will have consequences to England’s international standing in terms of school effectiveness. It will have long-term economic effects.

Innovation is generally attributed to the private sector. Producing creative new products that result in high levels of demand in new markets. Typically, we might think of companies like Apple and Google. On the other hand we see the public sector as bureaucratic, grey and uncreative. This, according to Mazzucato, is incorrect. Mazzucato proposes that it is the public sector that is responsible for far-reaching innovation.

On reading this book I was struck by the implications of Mazzucato’s thesis for state education. What are the conditions of our education system in terms of innovation and enterprise? The conditions are not healthy, there is limited resource and space for the kinds of innovation that resulted in say Apple’s success. And, handing schools over to the private sector, or to not-for-profits undermines the conditions for innovation and entrepreneurship further. These outsourced solution have to be even more cost concious and risk-averse than the public sector. Education policy since the 1980s has been based on outsourcing service rather than innovation and enterprise. Policy has been about service delivery rather than developing solutions and innovations in systems, practice and pedagogy.

Mazzucato discovered in her research of innovation that the private sector is risk averse, while the public sector provides opportunity for the research and development of risky innovations. The private sector fears failure, the public sector does not. Importantly, Mazzucato shows that public funding and public projects were the source of the major business successes of Apple, Google, green technology and the pharmaceutical industry. Companies have used innovations developed in public projects and through publicly-funded initiatives to develop considerable private sector success.

Mazzucato argues that that is within the public sector that creative risky blue-sky innovation takes place. It is the private sector that is effective in turning innovation into products and developing markets. This is fundamentally at odds with the received wisdom of the grey bureaucratic public sector and the innovative private sector.

What are the implications for public education (and for the health service, for that matter)? It means that underfunding schools, overworking teachers, underfunding research and development is unlikely to result in the kinds of innovation that will ensure that education continues to develop at a rate consistent with the rest of the world. It means that our understanding of learning in the context of schools will not keep up with progress in other areas. It could be that learning suffers because of it. This will ultimately undermine future economic growth nationally, regionally and internationally.

Since the inception of mass state-funded education in England and the UK we have struggled to develop prevalent traditional pedagogy and practice. We have struggled to take advantage of technological innovation, simply because of the lack opportunity to experiment with and create new pedagogies, practices and systems. Most of all, schools have struggled to respond to the changing needs of society.

Successive governments have been afraid to make the case for and support public-sector innovation. More recently, government have opted to outsource education to the private sector or not-for-profit organisations. Each of which are risk averse and by nature not able to deliver innovation at a rate and scale that we need. We need to rethink the role of public and private in state education. We need to think about how best to promote innovation.



Article in Huffington post 28 March: Stop Innovating in Schools. Please.




  1. Thank you, that’s very interesting. One of my main concerns about the current narrative of a search for ‘truths’ about education, is that it has a tendency to close down innovation and creativity. If we think we have the ‘answer’ (SSP for instance), then we potentially stop looking for even better ones. I think where innovation happens in teaching, it tends to happen more at the individual teacher level rather than at the school level.

    1. How would that work? SSP is a far newer way of teaching phonics than previous attempts and people like yourself have rejected it in favour of mixed methods that don’t work. It’s hardly a call for innovation and certainly not an argument against SSP. Yet again the people who talk about innovation and creativity demonstrate an utter lack of it themselves.

      1. Thank you for your comment. I have given this some thought. It made me think about what we mean by innovation in education?. Is it the introduction of new teaching approaches like Systematic Synthetic Phonics (SSP), or does it mean more general innovations in relation to educational practice, pedagogy or school systems?

        Generally the notion of innovation is explored in relation business or entrepreneurship (see, for example, Drucker). However, there have been some consideration of innovation in public services. A NESTA ( report seems to draw on ideas from private-sector innovation e.g. product and service. The Work Foundation have completed work that is more public-sector organisation focussed (

        On reflection I consider that innovation in schools involves generating new ideas about pedagogy, practice, processes and systems with or without external collaborators. This generally does not happen since schools are resourced to deliver a service and not to innovate. I would argue that it is an economic imperative that schools are funded to generate new ideas in relation to their practice. But that is another story.

        In terms of SSP, is it an innovation? Certainly it is a new process. It also has some evidence that it is effective, although the evidence base is equivocal. Will it promote innovation? Teachers who use the approach might do something different so that may be considered as innovative. However, the acid test, in my opinion, is whether it prompts, promotes and fosters innovation in schools. That is, will it foster the creative innovation of practitioners within the organisation, will they themselves generate new ideas and approaches. I think it is unlikely, since SSP is complete and standalone approach. What I consider to be innovation is where teachers are developing new approaches, trying them out and systematically evaluating them.

        This is not to say that I reject the value SSP, and I would encourage anyone who has faith in the approach to use it. There is certainly evidence of its value but that evidence is by no means conclusive. That is true for many things in education, they may show promise but in the end it is down to practitioner judgement. I am not sure where you have come across such unequivocal evidence that would convince you that it should be a universal approach.

        1. ; are both good websites with links to research as well as the arguments against whole language.

          More to the point, English is a phonetic language. Just because there are alternative graphemes doesn’t change this fact.

          As for the words incorporated from other languages – well those languages are phonetic too.

          Phonemes were invented by the Phonecians and were a major breakthrough in reading and writing. Chinese characters are whole words and should be learnt as such but even then Mandarin has pinyin which is phonetic precisely because the memorisation of thousands of characters to represent words is a hindrance to mass literacy. This latter argument is based on historical evidence but it is still evidence.

          Why would anyone take a phonetic language and teach it as symbols and characters? This is going backwards in terms of human innovation not forwards. It bears no relation to how the English alphabet and sounds work.

          So unless you can make the case that English is the result of whole words separate and unrelated as is traditional Chinese then it makes no sense to use any other approach to teach a phonetic language properly other than through phonics.

          I brought this up because of what Sue said in relation to your post. Innovation in terms of teaching which is trialled and evaluated is very much welcome but that is disingenous of Sue to bring up SSP in this context because the alternative methods of teaching reading were never evaluated and from the government documents on reading in the 1980s were an utter disaster which led to a rise in functional illiteracy.

          Also the alternative methods are simply not sustainable in producing a literate adult – guessing words, using pictures to guess and memorising words.

          These strategies are used by functionally illiterate people to cope not literate people who can read. I think part of the problem is the fact that education is dominated by middle class people who don’t know any illiterate or semi-literate adults and don’t understand what their problems are. My father is illiteratre and teaching children to function the way he does – rote memorisation, no link between letters and sounds, etc is hardly the way forward. This is anecdotal but lets be honest all research starts with assumptions and many of the assumptions in education are the result of conjecture, opinion and assumptions themselves. This is the result of yet more ignorance which is that philosophy is based on empirical evidence or has evidence to support it. This reification of philosophy over theory+evidence is what has led to the current mentality of “I should be able to teach the way I want to” or “It works for me” despite no evidence.

          Innovation in teaching still has to be based on solid foundations and not just a free for all “I feel like” approach which has been the case so far.

          Can teachers innovate in terms of teaching SSP more or less effectively? Can they contribute to developing its uses in spelling? Can they find ways of moving the children on from spelling phonetically to correct spellings?

          I would love to see the equivocal research on this because as far as I can see it has usually come less from evidence than from theory. As spelfabet points out teaching mixed methods is an issue in itself.

          The research that shows phonics works – e.g. Clackmanshire – did not teach mixed methods. Phonics lessons, guided reading and home readers need to be the right level for the child to reinforce word attack skills.

          There are a small percentage of children who won’t learn to read using phonics due to disabilities, memory problems, etc but this is a hindrance regardless of the method used. There are other interventions that need to take place prior to learning reading. As for the lower ability pupils – how many children were on school action or school action plus with undiagnosed literacy difficulties?

          If you want to make the case againt SSP, please do, but it needs to be rooted in the reality of how English as a language works. Innovation based on philosophy or ideology is never going to be as useful or helpful as that based on evidence.

  2. Thanks Sue. The narrative of certainty is the consequence of a policy based on privatising and outsourcing education. I agree, it completely stifles innovation and creativity. I think it is important that we argue the importance of teacher experimentation, creativity and innovation in schools. Education is seen as purely cost, rather than a site of innovation. My next post will look at how innovation might be funded. Or more importantly that by making investments in education and encouraging innovation will have considerable long-term economic benefits.

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