Rebecca Coulson is a freelance classical musician and writer, and was Parliamentary Candidate for the City of Durham at the 2015 General Election.
It’s time to worry when a Harvard academic confesses that the UK school system is so complicated “it’s almost impossible for an outsider to understand”.
During the Centre for the Study of Market Reform of Education’s second annual Milton Friedman lecture, however, Professor Paul Peterson admitted that UK complexities were actually “nothing” compared to those of his homeland. The marriage of three levels of American government and 14,000 school districts, he said, had led to an inflation of local power, and control that was limited at the level of the state and negligible at the top. Unsurprisingly, this makes it rather difficult to effect national change.
Yet change, Peterson argued, is overdue. Whilst the States had performed extremely successfully at the Sochi Olympics (and the UK hadn’t, he enjoyed pointing out) its fifteen-year-olds’ reading and writing has constantly been assessed as vastly poorer than that of most of the other competing countries. Worse is the American equity gap, which continues to follow racial lines.
Once, simply attempting to set higher standards and increase accountability was regarded a popular remedy, exemplified by the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act: a bipartisan Dubya/Ted Kennedy proposal. But, although Peterson showed this approach to have led to “striking gains” for children from minority backgrounds between 2000-2009, there seems to have been little improvement since. The Act also soon began to irritate teaching unions, as it became clear that teachers were the ones who would be held to account for failures. Politicians followed suit for partisan reasons.
So, Peterson’s question was — in the midst of #schoolchoicewk — to what extent can choice step in, and offer a helping hand? America is the land of the free, after all: the place of a million ice-cream flavours, and Milton Friedman, himself.
Friedman’s favoured method of extending school choice was the voucher system. Yet Peterson had to apologise that the current alternative American method — charter schools — seemed, to him, “more exciting”. However, he asserted, neither charters nor vouchers quickly improved children’s examination scores. Although the long-term advantages of both seem more substantial, that isn’t necessarily great news for politicians, whose approval ratings depend on swift and tangible progress. Moreover, as Peterson pointed out, “we’re talking about real-life politics”: the media and parents don’t like risky experiments.
“Real-life politics” can be hard to test, too. Because an insignificant amount of pupils partake in this form of ‘choice-based’ education (just five per cent of American children attend charters, and only fourteen states run voucher programmes), it’s difficult to assess its potential benefits. God alone (and acts attributed to him) seems to have offered answers. In New Orleans, following Hurricane Katrina, the whole school system was redeveloped. Previously failing and accused of corruption, the new system — which includes access to charter schools on a much bigger scale — has been declared a vast improvement.
Continuing with the religious theme, Peterson’s “favourite” voucher scheme (the New York School Choice Scholarships Programme) sent struggling ‘public’ school pupils to independent Catholic schools (constitutional arguments prevented the scheme from becoming a matter of public policy). Its popularity allowed for incomparably robust testing: whilst many families applied, the programme could only provide for around a thousand children, so Peterson suggested a test-conditions comparative evaluation, made fair by the lottery that had decided who would partake in the scheme. Again, the voucher children’s initial examination scores remained relatively unaffected, but the long-term advantages were substantial: many more graduated from university.
Although Peterson evinced that US school choice options can, over time, be beneficial, he agreed that they don’t represent “a silver bullet”. But we should also consider whether these systems — and ours — do indeed extend ‘real’ choice. Some argue that whilst the UK government speaks with the rhetoric of choice, it continues to impose a structure of inspection that demands conformity. Peterson, however, said that we should be grateful for Ofsted — as he felt the lack of an equivalent American inspectorate allowed for highly variable standards.
And maybe this reveals a deeper question: do we truly want choice, or do we simply want better schools? It’s easy to see choice as intrinsically good — something essential to our freedom, and an end rather than a means. But choice is never totally free; you can only choose from the options you have. And regulation is sometimes essential to prevent exploitation.
A final questioner asked Peterson about the increasingly popular idea of technology-led learning. Could this herald improvements? Peterson responded that he was “sceptical”, but it was “worth trying”; he also revealed the extent to which wealthy American foundations are investing in this. And perhaps that’s where true choice might lie: in the classroom that doesn’t depend on location, lottery, or parental income. The virtual classroom — offering individualised, pupil-centred teaching, from anywhere in the world.