We cannot improve schools from the centre: A bold call for more choice in education

James Croft
BY AND large, British families do not choose the education their children receive. For the majority of parents that choice is made for them, by the distance from their front door to the school gate, and whether they have the means to buy into the catchment of another school or avail themselves of a private alternative.

Advocates of local schooling maintain that what we need is a single good school in every community and that the most effective way that parents can support improvement is by showing loyalty to their local primary or secondary. In encouraging competition for places, they argue, new schools on the block attract away aspirational parents and divert resources from the schools that need them most. If it had its priorities right, they maintain, the government would be investing its resources in improving existing schools.

However, while community-based schooling has obvious social benefits, experience suggests that school improvement on this model, with no competitive challenge, can at best deliver only slow, incremental progress towards urgent educational goals, and not without significant investment. Massive increases in public spending in the decade to 2010 ensured that most schools had more than adequate resources to effect change, but this did not translate to improved educational outcomes. According to OECD Pisa benchmarking, national attainment relative to overseas competitors in fact fell in this period — in reading, from 7th place in 2000 down to 25th, and in mathematics, from 8th place down to 28th. Clearly increasing government spending alone is not enough; I believe we need a system that allows for diverse approaches to school improvement.

Contrary to the belief of successive Labour governments between 1997 and 2010, the right outcomes cannot be engineered from the centre. At the time of the 2010 general election, the Conservatives seemed to recognise that, after more than a decade of steady expansion of the statutory responsibilities of schools to families and their communities and a host of misguided and ineffectual strategic interventions from Whitehall, the integrity of the teaching profession had been compromised. The message was clear that responsibility needed to be restored to headteachers and that teachers needed to be trusted to get on with the job.

In spite of its ostensible commitment to alleviating the burden on schools and giving teachers greater autonomy, the government has in fact increased regulation of schools, while balking at the challenge of deregulating teacher training and recruitment and the process by which headteachers are accredited. Moves to lift the requirement for qualified teacher status from free schools and to allow those certified overseas to practice in the UK without needing to retrain are welcome, but national pay and conditions have been retained, which has hampered mainstream headteachers’ scope to relate pay to performance and to undertake more fundamental rethinking of how to recruit and deploy teachers and other personnel.

Successive government attempts to stimulate innovation and competition in UK education by opening up supply to both private and not-for-profit sectors have gained only limited traction, largely due to the conservative influence of unions and local authorities’ vested interest in keeping services in-house. Where the private sector has been allowed to contribute, efficiency gains have been startling, yet today only 5 per cent of primary and 28 per cent of secondary age pupils in the UK are enrolled at state schools which receive input from private firms, far behind many of those widening their lead in the international performance tables. Meanwhile, the free school policy has brought choice to only a very few neighbourhoods. More radical voucher-style reforms that might liberate for-profit supply and break down the divide between state and independent sectors seem a distant possibility. In short, we are far from the flexible school system, responsive to demand and accountable to parents, that we need.

For competition to work, and parental choice to drive up quality, we need a market framework that will enable successful schools to grow, failing schools to close, and significant new capacity to be brought to the system. Establishing a national funding formula that better incentivises good schools to get bigger, and makes failing schools face the consequences of pupil shortfalls would be a step in the right direction. Even better would be a lifting of the restrictions on private school firms and education management organisations and a funding system designed to activate consumer choice. Most fundamentally however, effort is needed to establish a new standard for policy success. We must place the right of parents to choose the education that best suits their children’s needs at the heart of schools policy, and place responsibility for outcomes with individual schools.

James Croft is the director of the Centre for Market Reform of Education. www.cmre.org.uk