James Croft is Director of the Centre for the Study of Market Reform of Education.
It doesn’t seem that long ago that all the talk in education circles was of the government’s controversial choice reform agenda. But lately, despite occasional political rhetoric to the contrary, it’s begun to look like less of a priority. The proposed extension in regional school commissioners’ remit – with a strong inclination toward brokering solutions on a single mandated model – together with renewed interest in nationalisation in the qualifications market, are part of a pattern of behaviour that has begun to make talk of maintaining the balance between consumer empowerment and autonomy sound increasingly hollow. This pattern of behaviour is inclining parents to be more receptive to the Corbyn/Powell proposition than they should be, and is lulling teachers back to Never Never Land.
There’s always been a difference of opinion within Conservative and New Labour ranks on the degree to which the move towards a schools-led, self-improving school system should be engineered and managed from the centre, partly because of concerns about ‘producer capture’ and exploitation of the consumer disadvantage in respect of information about quality, but also because school improvement is widely perceived in government policy-making circles as too important to trust to parent power.
Noting central government’s predilection for performance-based accountability and emboldened by the new Labour leadership, teachers increasingly tend to the view that trusting the judgement and commitment of professionals is always going to be more positive and productive. Except that it’s precisely this ‘support over challenge’ approach that got us bogged down in the first place.
Just as the answer to over-centrism is not a return to light-touch local authority oversight, however, the answer to paternalistic anxiety about outcomes is not central government managerialism. In respect of school choice, the government should complete what it has begun: half measures will achieve little and only serve to strengthen the status quo.
The purpose of choice reform is to empower consumers to influence the shape and quality of provision. Although generally achieved primarily through new supply, this can be done in different ways, and how you do it largely determines whether you get increased (and effective) choice, or more of the same. Some salient lessons for next steps in school choice reform may be drawn from comparison with other countries.
In Sweden, effective school choice was introduced, at scale, via the relatively straightforward means of introducing voucher funding. With a more liberal planning and regulatory regime than in England, the government avoided getting involved in procurement of buildings and financing start-up costs, leaving private investors to respond to demand. In the United States, state legislators have used authorisation processes to both accelerate and control new Charter school development. Diversity and competition are greatest, however, where there are multiple (non-government) authorising bodies, and government lets go control of supply – allowing diverse ownership and resisting calls to cap the number of licenses that can be issued, or otherwise control growth. Though there is evidence to suggest a level of quality variation is introduced in the process, the effect is reduced as new schools mature. Furthermore, a significant number of studies show mild to moderate positive competition effects for students in other schools where this approach is taken.
In England, the Government’s decision to opt for a model involving tight central control of both authorisation and capital funding of new schools, and transfers of existing schools, in an already heavily regulated market, has been determinative. Together with wider moves to standardise the school offer nationally, this exerts a stunting influence on provision – not unlike in the Netherlands, where similar dynamics have made ‘school choice’ and increasing enrolment in government-funded independent schools largely ineffective for inducing competition effects. The DfE’s brokering of transfers of an ever-widening class of schools to Academy sponsors, which entirely side-lines parents, is particularly out of keeping with this ambition.
Whatever the English Government have tried to do in regard to funding reform and opening up performance data to give provision-shaping and budget-impacting influence to parents, has been eclipsed by this decision.
This is not to dismiss what has been achieved. Pupil-led funding has ensured that a higher proportion of school funding now reaches schools. Funding is more reflective of their needs, and of the costs associated with educating pupils of lower than average prior attainment and/or straitened circumstance. But regional funding disparities undermine this and deter new supply in many areas. At the same time, additional cash transfers and soft budgetary constraints cushion schools which really are under-performing from feeling the impact of declining rolls. Considerable discretion remains with local authorities to subsidise schools which should close but which currently cannot be allowed to. Market conditions are insufficiently dynamic, and incentives too weak, to encourage competing local propositions.
For school choice to be effective in raising attainment, parents must be provided with accurate and credible performance measures to inform their choice. Education quality has been shown to matter to parents, but it’s difficult to gauge. In this regard, we are now much clearer about which subjects and qualifications enable student progression in further and higher education and work – and inter-subject enrolment flows indicate this is impacting student choices at the Secondary and Sixth form levels. School performance is now considered within a league table framework geared to capture attainment against a more rigorous set of qualification requirements, in addition to assessing the value schools add by comparing results the results of pupils with the same prior attainment. But much more work needs to be done to improve understanding of how schools’ wider curriculum offerings add value beyond the EBacc, and, in general, to render this information in such a way as to make a difference for parents’ and young people’s choices.
Broadly speaking, the best way to achieve this is to open information supply to tender. If we want a more nuanced view of education quality than that provided by test scores alone, this might be the best investment government could make. There’s scope too for adding reputational indicators, such as applications data from school admissions and the results of parent satisfaction surveys.
Other factors continue to undermine the effectiveness of school choice in England. Admissions reform may be fraught with political difficulties but should nevertheless be a priority. The inadequacies of the preference system become more apparent every year. It’s badly in need of reform. In New Zealand, proximity to school was scrapped as the basis of pupil allocation some years ago in favour of open admissions with ballots in cases of over-subscription. It’s not difficult to see that with a proper weighting attached to low attaining pupils and perhaps some up-front investment to stimulate expansion of school transportation, concerns about equitable access for less mobile families can be substantially resolved. Political inertia, together with limited school funding reform, only feeds back into the status quo – school choice tightly circumscribed by postcode and the size of one’s wallet.