Choice for the chosen few

30th July 2004 at 01:00
The Government wants to offer parents more options, but is this the best way to improve school standards?

Opponents of school choice are prey to a common confusion. They regularly offer a not very intelligent argument against parental choice. It runs like this: people don't want choice, they just want a good local school.

It is hard to stress just how beside the point this is. Parents choosing schools is not the objective and end of policy. The point is that offering choice is one of the ways in which schools get better. It is a means by which we can aim to achieve a good local school for everyone. It is hardly contentious that people want their child to go to a good school rather than a bad one. As a proponent of school choice, I agree with this statement.

It is also likely that people would prefer that good school to be close to home, rather than 10 miles away. So would I - that would be much the best outcome. Nobody in their right mind would prefer a choice of three rubbish schools over one good one. So, yes of course, people want good, local schools. The tough question, therefore, is this: what makes for a good school?

I would say there are a number of answers. Schools need adequate investment (especially when their students are difficult), good leadership and teaching and at least a critical mass of pupils ready to learn. I would add one more factor: empowering parents, granting them a stake in the school, is also important. It is good that parents should have a voice in the governance of schools and so much the better if that voice is backed by the threat that they might yet go elsewhere if performance is not good enough.

Maybe the opponents and the advocates of choice can do a deal on this basis: if we can show that parental choice helps schools get better then we can settle the dispute on the side of choice. By the same token, if it does nothing to improve standards, I will drop the whole thing.

There is a good deal of evidence that choice works to improve standards.

There is a law of the Labour backbenches which runs that if they do it in Sweden, then it must be all right. Well, they do parental choice in Sweden.

In fact, the Swedish government deliberately added private-school places to the public supply and encouraged parents to take their state funding to the new schools. They put the state schools under pressure by increasing capacity. It worked: the schools subject to competitive pressure performed better than those which were not. In some areas, no more than 5 per cent of parents took up the option to move their children. That didn't matter: it was the threat that they might that forced a better performance from the school.

There are two important riders to this case. First, it is crucial that it is the parent and not the school that does the selecting. It is not true that just any old choice scheme will do. If a school can increase its performance by selecting students who are easy to teach, then all the competitive pressure disappears. The Labour proposals are, for this reason, likely to work while the Conservatives' proposals are not.

Second, choice has to be as widespread as possible. This is partly a matter of increasing the number of places in popular schools. It also means that catchment areas need to be abolished. At the moment, choice is exercised by the wealthy through the housing market. The middle class move house in the knowledge that popular schools will select the pupils they take on the basis of proximity to the school. The desire for a good local school thus has a clearly perverse effect, worsening the social mix in schools and effectively depriving poorer parents of a real choice. If we abolished catchment areas and allocated pupils in over-subscribed schools by a ballot, everyone's choice would have equal weight. That way we would have effectively equal choice, and competition for parents and pupils would, as in Sweden, lead to higher standards.

And what of the argument that everyone just wants a good local school? Well, if it is true, then people will just choose it anyway won't they?

Philip Collins is director of the Social Market Foundation

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