Do parents want choice?

And what effect does competition have?


The issue of choice and competition in the state education system is a focus for continuing and often ill-tempered debate, generating more heat than light.

A recent survey has sparked off another round of exchanges.  More than eight in 10 people think parents should send their children to the nearest state school, according to findings from the first survey to gauge Britons’ attitudes to school choice in detail. The new data, released from the British Social Attitudes Survey, shows that 63 per cent take this view outright, with a further 22 per cent saying they would agree if the quality of different schools and their social mix of pupils was more equal. The survey asked around 2,000 members of the British public about a parent’s ‘right to choose’ and found that attitudes were ambivalent and to some extent contradictory. While a large majority favoured children attending the local state school, there was also broad support for the concept of choice, with 68 per cent agreeing that parents should have a basic right to choose their child’s school and 50 per cent agreeing that parents have a duty to choose ‘the best possible’ school for their child, even if other schools in the local area might suffer. Dr Sonia Exley of the London School of Economics and Political Science, who led the Economic and Social Research Council-funded study, said the apparent difference showed that parents do not necessarily want to have to make choices over schools. She said: “People do believe that they ought to have a ‘right to choose’, particularly where they are not happy with their local school. However, public feeling also seems to be that if schools were of an equal and acceptable standard then choice wouldn’t be necessary.” “Parents don’t necessarily want to have to make active choices in order to secure a good school for their child; they just want their nearest school to be good enough. Government promotion of choice as an agenda diverts attention away from the bigger issue of why this isn’t the case.” She is probably right in her assessment. In an ideal world people don’t want to have to choose-ideally they want a good school on their doorstep which they can get their child into..  so no real surprise there then. But rather too many parents don’t manage this as things stand.

In terms of priorities, only four per cent think that making sure ‘parents have a lot of choice about the kind of school their child goes to’ should be the number one concern for schools. When it comes to choosing a secondary school, seven in ten (69 per cent) do believe that parents ought to put the needs and interests of their own child first. However, six in ten (60 per cent) also believe that parents ought to balance this concern against the needs and interests of other children. Hence, the contradictory responses. My bet is that when push comes to shove and they are confronted with the need to make a real choice rather than answering a pollsters question, nine out of ten parents will do what they believe to be  is in their child’s’ best interests and other considerations  barely feature on their radar.

This survey  doesn’t actually tell us very much.  Its all in the abstract. Of course  parents would like a good local school.  But there is a pretty feeble logic behind the ‘finding’ that parents would prefer that their local school- and every local school- was great, and the implication that this in some way undermines the concept of choice. For choice to be meaningful you should be able to choose to send your child to a school that is not your local school. Not all schools are the same, nor are children, and parents should have a say in how their children are educated-all of which should lead one to the inescapable conclusion that in principle and practice-choice is a good thing. The choice in too many instances now is- take it our leave it. As one leading educator observed the sub-text behind the anti-choice position is that we should just trust the professionals and stop asking awkward questions. The direction of travel though in politics is pro-choice in public services, and for services to be much more responsive to consumer’s needs.

While governments may have an obvious interest in promoting and financing the market for education, it does not necessarily follow that the public sector must have a role, or indeed a monopoly role, as some unions and politicians  believe,  in providing that education. Indeed, in many countries, including developing countries, there are other providers of education, such as church schools, home schools, and private schools, both for-profit and not-for-profit .In many of the poorest regions parents seek education for children not in  the state sector but from the private sector (see footnote)

As Stephen Gibbons, Stephen Machin and Olmo Silva have established there are two main economic arguments for moving from a neighbourhood-based school system – in which pupils attend their local school – to a system based on parental choice.  The first is about allocation: more choice allows better matching of pupils with schools according to personal tastes and pedagogical needs. If every parent can find a school that educates their child at least as effectively as under a neighbourhood based system, then average achievement must improve.

The second argument is about teaching technology: if families are free to choose, then the mechanisms of market discipline will ensure that schools offer high standards. For this to work, school finances (and headteachers’ incentives) must be linked to school popularity via pupil numbers: unpopular schools must lose pupils and money while popular schools gain pupils and additional funding. So schools must innovate and adapt to meet parental demand for ‘quality’ or shrink and ultimately close.

Does it really matter who runs the ‘good’  local school.?  It shouldn’t matter providing it operates in a regulated environment and   within a robust, transparent  accountability framework  .

Education reformers believe that the only way to ensure the standards of all schools improve ,so that you are more likely to get a good school on your doorstep than you are now, is to introduce  real competition, and this in turn improves choice.  Critics, however, say that at best evidence is mixed about the effects of choice and competition on schools and educational outcomes and it has unacceptable consequences in that it exacerbates social divisions and segregation and you end up with sink schools(although arguably we end up with sink schools anyway under the current system).  Reformers will counter saying  that competition works but only when the playing field is level, the market is fair and transparent, resources truly follow the pupil (the consumer), with a separation between funding and provision and schools are allowed to fail. Often systems that introduce competition only do so on a partial basis and don’t satisfy these criteria. So the so called ‘competition’ has a limited effect on outcomes because it is heavily circumscribed and  what you then  have is  a hybrid system, neither one thing nor the other.  School competition in a wholly private market is straightforward to understand and apply. Parents choose a school based on price and quality, and schools are incentivised to make themselves attractive to parents so that they can survive and make a profit.  By contrast, as Rebecca Allen and Simon  Burgess have pointed out government-funded schools have often operated on a very different basis, with administrators assigning pupils to schools, and schools having in effect little incentive to use resources efficiently since they cannot retain surpluses. Elements of competition can be introduced into this environment, however, through the separation of funding and provision. Parents choose schools and schools receive funding for each pupil they attract. The idea is for popular schools to grow and unpopular schools to close, so mimicking the effects of true competition. This market-like, or quasi-market, mechanism combines some elements of market competition and some bureaucratic elements (Glennerster, 1991; Le Grand, 1991)

So the international evidence, according at least to Rebecca Allen and Simon Burgess,   is mixed on the effects of competition. Indeed UK evidence, they claim, suggests that there is at the very best a weak and small positive effect of competition on student outcomes.

However, the picture internationally, according to World Banks leading education economist, Harry Patrinos, is that involving the private sector (when he talks about the private sector we are talking about for profit and not for profits) can improve school performance – through competition, accountability and autonomy – as well as expand access. However, he also notes that without strong systems of accountability, private schools with public funding aren’t likely to produce large gains. The best results, he concludes, come where competition is enhanced through choice, disadvantaged areas are targeted and there is plenty of autonomy at school level.

So if competition can drive up standards – why  doesn’t  it appear to have had much effect in some instances. The answer probably, as I have touched on, lies    in the nature  quality and  extent of that competition.  How much real competition is there?  Is success rewarded and failure punished? Does funding actually  follow the pupil etc.? If these  conditions are satisfied , competition  should   raise standards in poorly performing schools.

True competition, of course, requires a measure of deregulation which would go well beyond the reforms envisaged by this Coalition government. And deregulation is risky for politicians as it has a price attached to it. Some schools will fail.  And risk averse politicians will have to take the flak.  This is what Rebecca Allen and Simon Burgess have to say about it:  ‘Radical deregulatory reforms are intuitively appealing, and may produce important long-term benefits that increase levels of parental satisfaction with the schooling system.  However, it is important to note that they are very risky since some ‘innovations’ would necessarily fail.  Therefore, to enable market-based reforms to work in England, society would have to come to terms with greater levels of school failure than exist under a tightly regulated system.  And policy makers would need to work to ensure that critical regulatory measures are in place to ensure that the life chances are not damaged for children who happen to find themselves in failing schools.’  Those who want to introduce much more competition into the market are aware that   competition has to be regulated.  How much regulation and ensuring that  regulation   protects the most disadvantaged are , of course, contentious issues.   But we know that markets don’t work well when they are unregulated . Indeed evidence suggests that independent or autonomous schools work best when they are well regulated. It is  possible to harness the strengths of the private sector and the positive effects of competition  within an enabling environment that  protects equity.

And what do Gibbons, Machin and Silva say about schools competing? ’Although there seem to be no general benefits from competition at the primary level – it seems weakly linked to worse performance – we do find some evidence that schools running their own admission systems and characterised by more autonomous governance structures  have higher educational standards in  more competitive markets. And pupils do seem to do better if their secondary school is in an urban environment and not geographically isolated from other schools. On the downside, we have also uncovered evidence that school competition increases inequality, with high and low-ability pupils more segregated in schools that face more competition. This suggests that whatever performance advantages it offers, further expansion of market mechanisms in education may come at the cost of increased social polarisation’

The fact is that evidence across the world (acc  studies from OECD  and World Bank Group)does suggest that competition and school choice, within a properly regulated environment, help improve outcomes. Market mechanisms   can force educational “producers” to deliver services closer to what their clients really want and competition can drive improvement. But there are political risks attached. Competition means, as we have said, that some schools will fail and blame for this failure will probably fall not on the schools themselves, (although it may be justified)  but on the policy and the politicians who have championed the policy. There is also a danger that such reforms have the potential to create increased polarisation unless, that is, they are properly regulated. It is also true that some sections of the population are better than others at using choice to benefit their children. So the greater capacity by some groups to take advantage of choice can potentially widen social divisions.  But on this latter point you don’t deny people choice  simply because some people, who can choose, don’t, or indeed  make the wrong choice ie one that doesn’t in an objective sense benefit their interests . You try to support those  who may not have the capacity to choose and help nudge them, if need be in the right direction. The political and social risks though may explain, to some extent, why real competition in state education is still very much the exception rather than the rule.  Most politicians are risk averse, while progress, whether in education or  elsewhere relies on (managed) risk taking.

As a footnote, it is worth noting that in some of the poorest areas of the world, parents living on the margins choose not to use state schools for their children but choose instead private schools. Professor James Tooley has found that in Nigeria, for example, 41% of pupils go to private schools, and these schools outperform state schools. He found this pattern across the developing world. In many of the poorest and remotest areas private schools far outstripped state schools in terms of both the number of pupils  served and in the quality of provision.

The future of competition and  accountability in education  Rebecca Allen (Institute of Education, University of London)  Simon Burgess (Centre for Market and Public Organisation, University of Bristol)

CEP research programme by Stephen Gibbons, Stephen Machin and Olmo Silva

The educational impact of parental choice and school competition 2007