Only real school choice for parents can inspire an education revolution

Gabriel H. Sahlgren

IN THE past century, most parts of the economy have seen a fundamental transformation in how things are produced and delivered. Yet schools today function pretty much as they did 100 years ago. The radical progress characterising modern societies simply does not apply to education.

And there’s a reason for this. A fundamental difference between education and other fields is the lack of markets in the former. Innovation requires innovators. And innovators need the freedom to innovate. A dearth of competition between different suppliers, combined with a heavy regulatory framework, has generally strangled innovation in education.

The idea behind school choice is to promote progress by unleashing market forces. This has been an ostensible driver behind government policy since 1988, yet past initiatives have fallen short of producing anything close to a true market. Markets require entry, expansion, and exits. The English choice model, as a whole, has none of these elements to a sufficient degree, mostly because of strict regulation and the propping up of failing schools. Instead, since the dominant tie-breaker in deciding whether you can send your child to the school you want is how close your house is to it, a real choice is not a reality for those who don’t live near to a good oversubscribed school.

School competition both increases student achievement and can bear down on costs

England is not alone in its predicament. In a new book, I have analysed a vast amount of research, while paying attention to the competitive incentives in the systems under investigation. Most countries lack supply-side dynamics, and this ensures that failing schools remain in business.

To produce scale, profit is key. In Chile and Sweden, for example, profit-making enterprises have raised competition. There is nothing wrong with non-profit schools, but they have neither the incentives nor the ability to rival for-profit providers in this respect. Like in other sectors, for-profit companies are key to producing innovation. Without them, it is unlikely that an education revolution will occur.

Another common problem is a lack of school autonomy. Many schools have to stick to rules on teacher employment terms, and on the curriculum they can follow (although some, like free schools and academies, have more freedom). This makes it difficult to pursue innovation. Without autonomy, providers cannot react to competitive incentives, even if they do emerge.

These are just some of a longer list of issues. In terms of the overall education system, the picture is not positive anywhere. Some countries have better programmes than others, but all fail in absolute terms. That makes it unsurprising that reforms, although rarely negative, have been far from panaceas. If a patient takes a sugar pill instead of the proper medication, we would not expect more than the placebo effect.

While studies show that independent school competition both increases student achievement (according to the international education survey PISA), and lowers costs, cross-national research can only analyse competition within fundamentally-flawed education systems.

Certainly, education is different from other goods and services. We must ensure schools remain accountable against credible quality measures. The government could play a constructive role in this area by providing open source school data, and allow third-party providers to compete by producing different types of information.

The external benefits of education to society also mean there is a case for government funding and some minimum curriculum requirements. This may make it necessary for government to have a slightly larger role in education than it does in other fields. But this is different from basically granting it a monopoly, as is the case today.

In the education debate, we often hear calls for policies like small classes and higher teacher density. But this is a red herring. This is not because they do not matter: they do, but the effects are generally small and are not a long-term solution. The move from labour-intensive to capital-intensive production has traditionally been associated with radical productivity gains. This is what we want in education, too.

We can’t be content with the current situation. Rather than tinkering, it is time to start building the framework that will unleash market forces in education. The sugar pill can produce no more than marginal gains – the patient must begin to take its medication.

Gabriel H. Sahlgren is director of research at the Centre for Market Reform of Education. He is also author of Incentivising excellence: school choice and education quality, which is available now.