New book argues for proper competition and incentives to improve quality within the education system


Gabriel Sahlgren, the head of research at the pro-market  CMRE think tank, launched his new book ‘ Incentivising Excellence: school choice and education quality’  this week. He argues that there is much evidence that competition works in education but that  when politicians    introduce  competition to schools systems it is always limited  and hedged and rarely   has  meaningful  incentives in place to improve outcomes.Certain conditions have to exist before competition can work to deliver improved outcomes. These conditions are often ignored or exist only in part.    More  often than not  incentives  are unrelated to quality . Vouchers can and do work but they must be differentiated and well targeted in order, for example, to help disadvantaged pupils.   There is much evidence that autonomy works but it must be embedded within a high quality accountability framework. He wants competition between schools but collaboration between teachers .  He said  there is evidence that the initial academies have improved outcomes but overall progress has not ,to date ,been particularly significant, partly because academies have limited autonomy and partly because of limited incentives within the system.Failing schools dont close and outstanding schools rarely expand to meet demand. Profit making schools are important to drive systemic improvement. There is little evidence that Swedish reform would successfully have increased competition and educational attainment without the profit motive. This is something the UK government should learn from he says.  Sahlgren noted that Sweden’s recent relative decline in Pisa ratings has nothing to do with introducing competition. Indeed   competition has actually ensured that Swedens decline is less than it would otherwise have been. Sweden’s problem is that it has very weak accountability measures and poor on-going  information on  schools and student performance, compounded by changes in teaching practice that focus more on group teaching and learning than the needs of individual learners.

Sahlgren wants, among other things , to see a major pilot for vouchers, as well as  profit making schools operating  within the state system. Parents  could be given a voucher for the cost of their childs education in a state school ie just over £5,200 pa in a secondary school (£4,100 pa- Primary). If parents shop around then some schools may fail but that is a price that has to be paid if competition is to benefit the system overall.


An innovative way of financing education is via cash transfers to schools based on enrolments or by providing cash to families to purchase schooling – in other words- through vouchers. It is often assumed that those who promote vouchers are from the libertarian right. Some may be, of course,  but there are many on the left of the political spectrum   who like the idea of targeted vouchers, specifically  to help the most disadvantaged pupils  to gain access to good  public schools. It is often forgotten that in the USA one major  vouchers supporter is   Michelle Rhee, a Democrat, who  was a reformist  chancellor of the Washington, D.C. public schools from 2007 to 2010.


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