Parental Choice

December 22, 2009

Parents have some choice of which school to send their kids to. Not a great amount because, surprise, surprise, the best schools are already full up. But since the eighties they can choose a school and, where there is space, their kids can go there.

For some on the left this is a great injustice. Middle class parents should be forced to send their children to really bad schools, because those schools would be better off with the children of aspirational parents conscripted into them. According to the theory, middle class students are a joy to teach and they raise morale and standards by their mere presence. I suppose by a similar argument hospital wards would be more effective places if we made healthy people stay in them. Maybe prisons would be happier places if we locked up more innocent people?

Of course, the reason that this is nonsense is that while the culture of a school is influenced by parental background, it is not the whole story. Middle class children who are surrounded by the underclass tend to either become either very quiet, desperately trying to hide from their peers, or they “go native” and behave as badly as anyone else. Schools are not changed much by fluctuations in their intake. You can throw as many sheep to the wolves as you like, the wolves will still act like wolves.

However, these days the pendulum has swung the other way. The fashionable idea, and, if the polls are to be believed, the policy of the next government, is that of increasing choice.

There are many variations on this policy. Some talk of “vouchers” as though giving a piece of paper to parents makes their choice more real. Others talk as if no choice currently exists and we were still in the 1970s. Many talk as if the problems of the system will soon be solved by the magic of choice and competition. Yes, it’s the 1980s again and this time reality is not going to stand in the way of this policy.

There are red-in-tooth-and-claw versions of this policy in which vouchers can be used to pay part of the fees at private schools, effectively redistributing resources from the majority to the most privileged minority. There are versions of the policy in which selection is brought back, making parental choice secondary to the choice of the schools. But the usual version of the policy, and the one the Tories are now proposing, is to have things basically the same as they are now but hope that by waving one’s arms wildly one can conjure up new schools from nowhere and, even more implausibly,  stop anything too bad happening to the students still at the old schools.

Now there are quite a lot of people out there willing to run schools. Some are mad, but probably no madder than a lot of the people already running education. The problem is that we have already had several years of letting private groups run schools as part of the academy program. It has revealed that a) some of these people can make an excellent contribution to the education system and b) some of them can’t and simply piss public money up the wall. The fantasy ignores this and dreams that we can simply make it easier and easier for people to set up schools without getting worse and worse people involved in doing so. In some versions of the story schools will appear anywhere, in old office blocks or any convenient building. No problem. Some people believe that setting up and running a school is no more difficult than, say, running a car boot sale and once you get fifteen kids and a teacher you have a school.

Of course, the reality is something different. According to studies cited in Johnes (1993) primary schools need 70 or 80 students and secondary schools well over 1000 to be efficient. Lots of smaller schools are likely to waste a lot of money even if they are well run. If they are run by idiots (or should I say greater idiots than currently) we can expect even more money to be wasted. Either the private organisations involved are going to be given enough money to waste or they will think twice about risking their own money setting up a school. This is without considering the costs incurred in schools which are suddenly half-empty due to an exodus of students.

Of course, that’s half of the appeal of the policy. In the fantasy bad schools will lose pupils and go out of business, good schools will grow and new schools will meet any surplus demand. Unfortunately supply and demand don’t work quite so conveniently in education. There are considerable rigidities involved. People don’t want to change schools as often as they change supermarkets. Good schools don’t actually want to grow indefinitely. Why should they? If you have a successful school with 1000 students in it, why would you want to try and cope with any more students? It is possible that letting private companies run schools for a profit would create some incentive for this, but the Tories have said they won’t do this. More importantly, bad schools cannot be easily closed. There are two problems with closing schools, firstly you have to find somewhere for existing students to go, secondly you have to convince parents that they want their children to go somewhere else. The first can be an extremely difficult endeavour in the real world (as opposed to the fantasy world where you can apparently set up a school in your garden shed). The second is a policitician’s nightmare: hundreds of pissed off parents who are about to be seriously inconvenienced by relocating their children. Local authorities struggle with this in the situation where they have monopoly powers. How private organisations would deal with this is beyond me.

Of course, none of this is new. This is the reason why this policy was never followed through even during the free market enthusiasm of the eighties. However since then the Tories have a new magic word: “Sweden”. Sweden has opened up its school system to greater competition and it seems to have worked okay. To hear Tories talk about it you’d think it was some kind of utopia (as opposed to successful by low British standards but nothing to make Finland feel insecure about). The assumption is that we are just like Sweden: A monolithic, state-controlled, secular system with a pool of highly qualified professional teachers, just waiting to be energised by allowing greater diversity, such as private schools and faith schools, into the system, with competent local authorities who can be trusted to responsibly regulate the system.

So really, the only question to be asked is: how long is it going to take them to notice?


Johnes, Geraint. The Economics of Education. Macmillan Press, 1993


  1. Crazy thought. Instead of encouraging people who may or may not know what they are doing to set up new schools why not try to make the ones we’ve got better? Stop wasting their time with pointless initatives, non subjects (PSHE) and inspections that measure nothing useful (OFSTED). Stop dumbing everything down, give teachers back control of what they teach and let schools get on with the busness of teaching and learning. Ok – no – that’s crazy, sorry.

  2. As usual, I’m sitting here reading, nodding my head…

    Middle class children who are surrounded by the underclass tend to either become either very quiet, desperately trying to hide from their peers, or they “go native” and behave as badly as anyone else.

    Yes – I see this every day. And anyone who thinks that having a few “good apples” in amongst a barrel of bad ones will somehow turn the bad ones into good ones is living in cloud cookoo land. If the kids see no value in education and don’t want to be at school for whatever reason, and this is reinforced at home, we’re just p*&sing into the wind. And until somebody higher up in the system than mere worker ants like me admits this, we’re going to be having the same arguments for the next fifty years.

    Someone wrote on School Gate yesterday that “Private Schools Should Be Banned”, because what we should be doing instead is making all schools good schools. Well, yes, I’d agree with that in principle, it’s what we’d all like, but there’s a major problem. IT WON’T HAPPEN. Not when the current system is so weighted towards looking good rather then being or doing good.

    And the idea of closing bad schools and sending the kids elsewhere is just ridiculous. Especially as those “bad” schools are likely to be in more economically deprived areas meaning that it could possibly be more expensive for less well off kids to get to school.

    Although come to think of it, maybe that’s not such a bad idea! ;-)

  3. I watched what happened to my children’s high school when “freedom of choice” was applied to it. The dross that used to make my workplace such a challenging, vibrant and exciting (job adspeak) place to work, dragged it from a mainly middle-class suburban comp to a shiny new build that recently failed its Ofsted inspection.

    • Progress! I think it was in Hayek that I came across the idea that most people assume that change or progress is always, and by definition, for the good, even though that is obviously not true.

  4. Out of interest, how would closing private schools help? Other than massively increasing the number of kids that need school places?

    • Well it would obviously help (otherwise it would not be proposed), the question is whom. Banning private schools would bring all schools under the thumb of the State. Some people seem to think that would be a goodthing. These people don’t like the idea of independent, autonomous schools just doing whatever they like without supervision, observation, tracking, ranking, filing, etc.

      Judging from comments made by OldAndrew and by others on this website, it seems that private schools still offer better working conditions than state ones. But that’s just wrong! that’s elitist! everyone must be the same, sorry, have a level playing field, even if it’s a muddy one. ;-)

      • So what you’re saying is that no one should be allowed to opt out of a system, even if the system isn’t very good, and even if they are prepared to pay twice(tax and fees) in order to opt out? Does the same go for home education?

        • I don’t think he is saying that.

          • Sorry, I was being ironic. I strongly believe in autonomous, private schools. Please ignore the last sentence in my comment.

  5. Do private schools in the UK get government funding like they do in Australia?

    • No, but they do get charitable (i.e. tax exempt) status.

      Until 1997 there was also the “assisted places” scheme which paid the school fees for some 6000 students. This was justifed as providing opportunity for those who took the places, but was, in effect, a subsidy to the private schools.

  6. And which was roundly abused by separated/divorced parents who allocated the sprog to the less well-paid parent and claimed hardship.

  7. The Tory proposal was actually inspired by American charter schools, but obviously that doesn’t wash as well with Guardian and Independent readers as does the ‘Swedish’ model.

    I’ve visited a few American charter schools, and they were outstandingly good. I know that there are quite a few rubbish ones as well, but overall the evidence is that charters produce better academic results and much higher parental satisfaction for a lot less money.

    I think the most significant point about American charters is that the great majority serve poor, inner-city areas which are almost exclusively minority. One Detroit charter I visited had 600 black kids and one white–but the teachers at the white suburban Norwich comp where I was then teaching would have died for kids like these. They were industrious, outgoing–and exceptionally well-behaved. By contrast, Detroits public schools are utter shambles, where gangs rule and teachers decamp to the staffroom.

    I’ve got a lot of time for Old Andrew, but on this one I think you’ve started with a conclusion and argued to it. Charters may not be a panacea, but they are certainly a step in the right direction. And they are certainly better than ‘vouchers’ which would merely give a future Labour government an excuse for bringing independent schools under ever-closer control.

  8. I have heard plenty of good things about charter schools in the US, however, surely they are basically a similar model to Academies – autonomous schools in deprived areas freed from regulations but with extra pressure on results?

    I’m quite happy with carefully creating that type of school in that type of circumstance. My issue with the Tory plans is that they seem to think this can be “rolled out” across the whole system simply by creating the powers for any idiot to set up their own school. I don’t think that is the lesson from the Charter Schools, or for that matter from Sweden, and I don’t think it can work.

    Worse, I think that the effort to set up this sort of system is a distraction from actually dealing with the problems in the schools we already have. The Tories have correctly identified some of the key problems in our education system, but instead of proposing to address them, they seem content to just declare that “the market will sort everything”. However, one thing our system doesn’t lack at the moment is competition or diversity.

  9. Out of interest, has OA ever done a post concerning home-schooling? It does seem loosely related to the ideals of parental choice.

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