James Croft is Executive Director of the Centre for the Study of Market Reform in Education.
The past few years have been a fertile period for positive change in British education, with new challenger schools expanding choice for parents and introducing a competitive dynamic to the local schools landscape; significant extensions to school autonomy, and real progress with the kinds of measures that you need to get choice working right as a mechanism for improvement.
Yet paradoxically, according to a 2015 You Gov poll commissioned by PTA UK, fewer than a fifth (18 per cent) of parents in England think that the Government even listens to them about their children’s education. It’s hard to that imagine much will have changed following the release of the Government’s plans to increase the ration (for some) via the introduction of more grammars and selective faith schools. Not so long ago, the Conservatives seemed genuinely invested in engaging the consumer interest in education. So what has happened?
Well, in terms of investment in new school options, demographic pressures at the primary level in particular have meant that, although some new schools have introduced surplus places, in many areas these have simply soaked up the overspill from over-subscribed schools. The free school programme has increasingly become oriented towards providing for this ‘basic need’ for school places. With new schools at a disadvantage – with Education Funding Agency delays leading to longer than ideal pre-opening timelines, and a loss of publicity arising from having missed the list for local authority applications – a good number of parents (indeed, often the majority) aren’t actually choosing to go to them; instead, they’re being allocated to them when their preferences are frustrated.
Meanwhile, on the academies front, distinctives have been slow to emerge. Schools that have converted, joined chains, and been introduced or begun themselves to do things differently have found themselves hampered by overlapping and competing oversight between the agencies of central government (the Education Funding Agency and Regional School Commissioners); Ofsted, and local Directors of School Standards (with inconsistent ideas about what a good schoo looks like), and an increasingly interventionist approach from central government in matters of curriculum and qualifications. Autonomy often appears merely theoretical. All of this has important consequences for schools’ ability to field a distinctive proposition.
Managing relationships with paymasters and regulators has come to take even greater precedence over attention to parental concerns than in the past. The 2015 YouGov poll for PTA UK was commissioned on the back of proposals for the extension of the power of the new Regional School Commissoners revealed overwhelming support for a requirement on them to consult with parents over such decisions as whether a school should be taken over by an academy sponsor.
Together with reforms to school governance removing the necessity of including parents and local stakeholders from governing bodies, the former clearly feel that the important decisions are now taken above their heads. Only a third of those polled by YouGov said they even understood government changes to education. A year later, and the PTA’s National Survey has 53 per cent of parents either not understanding (24 per cent) or disengaged (29 per cent) with government policy. That this ought to be of greater concern to government has been highlighted recently by the establishment, by the former Downing Street education adviser and Founder of the New Schools Network, Rachel Wolf, and others, of a new campaign group, ‘Parents and Teachers for Excellence’, expressly oriented to improving parental understanding and engagement in education.
Of course, these developments might not have caused such frustration among parents, first, had funding reforms had actually succeeded in operationalising the choice mechanism; second, if ultimately pupil allocation were not so tied to residence in the admissions system; and, third, if the Government had invested more in informing parent choices.
Unfortunately, recent funding reforms have not had the bite they were designed to have. Though we now have a substantially pupil-led funding system, persistent inequities in regional levels of per pupil funding, and a (sometimes related) reliance on bail out funds and minimum funding guarantees undermines accountability to parents. Schools, meanwhile, are too restricted in what they can do to add services and revenue in response to parental demand.
The reality of choice likewise remains an issue, with the reliance on the allocation mechanism on proximity effectively rationing choice among the already well-off. In many, particularly rural, areas of the country there are no competing schools, and constraints on new supply, chief among them planning law, act as further inhibitors. Those that can buy their way into the catchment area – and the better educated – are favoured over those without the means to interpret and act upon the information offered to help them decide. This makes talk of a choice effect on pupil performance meaningless in our present system. If choice is to be constrained by inadequate supply, the least we could do is offer the chance fairly. Until we’re prepared to break the tie with residence via open admissions, and lotterise allocation when schools are over-subscribed, this won’t change.
In respect of information about the quality of what’s on offer, it’s true that middle class parents are more likely to engage (although as the research on the impact of even fairly wooden league tables shows, this doesn’t mean that they can’t spur general improvement for all), but then there’s never been proper investment in making it very accessible or understandable. Progress has been made in efforts to capture the value-added that schools bring to the equation over and above socio-economic factors relating to pupil performance (surely a better approach than looking at straight attainment), but with the axing of Nicky Morgan’s White Paper ‘Educational Excellence Everywhere’ proposals for a ‘Parent Portal’ information resource, making useful and reliable information available to parents is now no longer even the afterthought it was then.
International evidence indicates that increasing school choice, and thereby diversity, and competition among schools, with appropriate supporting measures, could have a transformative effect on education provision in UK schools. The YouGov poll for PTA UK also found that 85 per cent of parents ‘want a say in how their child is educated’. It’s clear that they don’t want to be managed out of the accountability equation. For all the challenges of making complex information about quality intelligible, and generally of reorientation of accountability towards parents, there is no future in the defeated re-nationalisation we’re increasingly seeing evidence of in education. It’s time for a rethink.