Competition between schools is double-edged. More-open enrolment, pupil-led funding and league tables have created a spur to improve exam performance. And they may well have contributed to the 20 per cent increase in the GCSE average points score since 1992.
But as the recent OFSTED review of secondary education pointed out, schools have not improved at equal rates. Competition was supposed to ensure that the rest would improve to rival the best. In fact the opposite has happened.
The biggest improvements have been in schools already achieving the most. While among the rest, as OFSTED put it, "some have become locked into a vicious circle". Unable to attract sufficient first preferences they have unfilled places and are forced to admit pupils excluded from other schools, making them even less popular.
Research at the Open University earlier this year (TES, January 9) found no evidence that standards were being driven up more where competition between schools was fiercest. If anything, the free market seemed to depress standards and apparent improvements in grant-maintained schools were largely due to improved intakes.
Competition seems to have done very little at all for the lowest achievers. Nationally, the proportion leaving school with no qualifications has remained at around one in 14. And now new figures reveal that recent improvement in GCSE grade points of the top 20 per cent of pupils is more than twice that of the bottom-scoring 20 per cent.
No doubt the downside of competition, as Carol Adams and the Open University researchers point out this week (page 2), also includes a greater reluctance to share improvements with neighbours. But it has long been clear that the key performance indicator in exam league tables - the percentage obtaining five A to C grades - distorts improvement efforts by focusing on the pupils between C and D grades.
From the autumn, the school grade point average will also be included in performance tables. And an Institute for Public Policy Research paper this week called for the proportion of pupils failing to obtain at least 20 GCSE grade points to be included as a key indicator of social exclusion. But as long as the percentage of five A to C grades continues to be published, it will remain the headline indicator driving competition between schools - for good and ill.