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CMRE Conference: 'School choice, opportunity and equity'

The CMRE School Choice Week conference,'School choice, opportunity and equity'  took place on Thursday 28th January at the Institute of Economic Affairs. The conference was sponsored by the Friedman Fundation for Educational Choice.

Leading academics, thinkers, policymakers, and politicians considered policy challenges facing school choice and the conditions that would need to prevail for it to fulfil its promise in relation to improving education.

and support from Reform think tank, PLMR, FASNA, and Cambridge Assessment.


Host’s welcome and opening remarks 

Professor Philip Booth, IEA Editorial and Programmes Director, and James Croft, CMRE Executive Director, CMRE, and Conference Convenor 


Session 1: Opening presentation‘Can school choice be made to work?' 

Gabriel Heller Sahlgren, CMRE Research Director



School choice should not be seen as an isolated reform measure but rather as a cornerstone in a coherent reform package designed to transform the incentive structure in education. This presentation considers the conditions that need to prevail for school choice to fulfil its promise in relation to improving educational outcomes.

Session 2: Panel discussion: ‘From preference to choice: should school admissions be liberalised?’

in partnership with Reform

Chair: Amy Finch, Senior Researcher, Reform

Speakers: Dr Rebecca Allen, Director of Education Datalab; Dale Bassett, Co-Founder, Compass School, Southwark; Dr Elizabeth Passmore, OBE, Chief Schools Adjudicator, The Office of the Schools Adjudicator (OSA); Professor Toby Salt, Chief Executive, Ormiston Academies Trust



The school reforms of the last three decades aimed to activate parental choice by increasing access to information about school performance. As a result, parents now have more information about schools than ever before through more data in the league tables and qualitative information in Ofsted reports. Yet parents’ ability to choose on the basis of this information remains restricted by schools’ admissions policies. While parents can theoretically apply to any school in the country, most oversubscribed state-funded schools give priority on the basis of who lives closest to the school, which effectively ties choice to residence, and hence in large measure to wealth or earnings. Meanwhile efforts to expand choice in terms of the type of schools available, and more recently to allow schools a measure of discretion to select, have tended to focus on faith or ability. These policies raise important concerns about equitable access to good quality schools, and about whether the full benefit of parental choice, in respect of its potential to improve pupil outcomes, is being realised. This panel session will consider the different facets of admissions policy restricting parental choice, such as locality, faith and ability. It will consider the potential benefits from liberalising school admissions and the policies that could help maximise school choice through admissions.

Session 3: Presentation: 'Long-Run Effects of Free Choice Among Public Schools in Tel Aviv: College Attainment, Earnings and Social Outcomes at Adulthood'

Chair: Tim Emmett, CMRE Trustee, and Director, Sagacium

Speaker: Professor Victor Lavy, Professor of Economics, University of Warwick, and William Haber Professor of Economics, Hebrew University of Jerusalem;

Response from: Dr Henrik Jordahl, Associate Professor of Economics at Uppsala University, and Programme Director of The Economics of the Service Sector at the Research Institute of Industrial Economics (IFN), Stockholm 

Sponsored by PLMR

Research in economics of education about the effectiveness of educational programs and interventions have centered on the evaluation of impact on short-term outcomes, primarily standardized test scores, as a measure of success. However, since the ultimate goal of education is to improve lifetime well-being, attention shifted recently to long term consequences at adulthood, for example, schooling attainment, labor market outcomes earnings and crime. However, the type of educational interventions studied is still limited and much remained to be unraveled. My research takes advantage of an experiment conducted two decades ago in the city of Tel Aviv, Israel. This school choice program was very effective in improving high school attainment and cognitive achievements six years later (Lavy 2010). I have since examined whether these effects persist beyond high school. The results indicate that treated students experience significant gains in post-secondary enrollment and in completed years of education and also have higher earnings at age 30. These significant positive treatment effects reflect mainly an increase in academic education, through increased enrollment in three-years academic colleges but not in research universities, and some shift away from vocational education at adulthood. Additional gains are reductions in health and mental disability rates and a decline in eligibility and receipt of disability welfare allowances.
You can read Professor Lavy's paper here.

Session 4: Panel discussion:‘The national funding formula and beyond: prospects for voucher funding on a level playing field’

Chair: Professor Sir Julian Le Grand, Richard Titmuss Professor of Social Policy, London School of Economics

Speakers: Luke Sibieta, Programme Director, Education, Employment and Evaluation division, Institute for Fiscal Studies; Dr Olmo Silva, Associate Professor, London School of Economics

Sponsored by FASNA


The school funding system in England has moved a lot closer to a positively discriminating voucher system, just one that can't be topped up or used outside the state-funded sector. A much larger share of funding follows individual pupils and the amount attached to disadvantaged pupils has been on the increase since the late 1990s. However, the system is highly complex, not very transparent and allocations to local authorities are based on increasingly out of date information on needs and costs. In response to such concerns, the government is planning to implement a national funding formula for schools in England from 2017 onwards. What are the options for reform, and how do these fit with the government's stated aims of increasing the numbers of academies and free schools, and reducing the role of local authorities? Beyond the introduction of such a formula, with the great majority of funding following pupils and weighted to disadvantage, this session also considers options for the development of the allocation mechanism along more explicit voucher lines, and what the potential gains, if any, might be.

Session 5: Debate:'Opportunity and equity in education'

Motion: ‘This house believes that school choice is the best way to provide educational opportunity and improve equity.' 

Chair: Fraser Nelson, Editor, The Spectator

Speakers: Suella Fernandes, MP, Member of Parliament for Fareham; Laura McInerney, Editor, Schools Week; Ryan Shorthouse, Director, Bright Blue; and Andrew Harrop, General Secretary, Fabian Society



Opponents of school choice often claim that it ‘self-evidently’ increases school segregation and reduces equity – essentially because a choice system is said to favour families better off and better educated over those without the means to interpret and act upon the information offered to help them decide. It is for this reason that in most countries, pupil allocation mechanisms remain tied to a greater or lesser extent to proximity, and thus to the local school model. The idea is that this inclines policy to focus on providing a uniform national standard of provision across the schools landscape. Critics of this approach point out that it is unlikely that all schools, head-teachers, and teachers could ever be made entirely equally effective. In view of the much stronger influence, in a proximity-based system, of the choices of better-off parents moving into the catchments of more sought-after schools, the question ought to be how we can best ameliorate the impact of social background on achievement, rather than eradicate it. Institutionalising school choice (as opposed to its being accessible only privately, according to means), may therefore be a better alternative to local schooling in respect of improving access to good quality education – granted that supporting measures may be required to optimise it. This panel session considers arguments for and against this more limited ambition and whether policy designed to further individual opportunity can be reconciled with the interests of equality.

Session 6: Panel discussion: Choice in curriculum and qualifications: can national qualifications accommodate diversity and maintain standards?'

Chair: Bene't Steinberg, Group Director of Public Affairs, Cambridge Assessment

Speakers: Nima Sanandaji, Research Fellow, Centre for the Study of Market Reform of Education, and Research Fellow, Centre for Policy Studies; Nick Cowen, PhD Candidate, King's College London; David Corke, Director of Education and Skills Policy at the Association of Colleges

Sponsored by Cambridge Assessment


Diversity in qualifications and examinations within a national equivalency framework is a unique feature of the English, Welsh, and Northern Irish education landscapes, but the perception that choice and competition in this context has led to a ‘race to the bottom’, which dumbs down the qualifications on offer and generates grade inflation, has put increasing pressure on the government to increase regulation and lent surface plausibility to proposals to consolidate and nationalise provision. But is increased regulation the answer? Would monopolisation sort out the problems? Is there a case to be made for franchising as an alternative? A recent Select Committee inquiry revealed wide stakeholder support for choice in qualifications, albeit circumscribed in various ways. So what could be done with the incentive structure to encourage exam boards to compete on quality, and is there a case to be made for increasing the scope of competition so that qualifications have more of a defining role in shaping school curricula?

Session 7: Panel discussion: The challenges of developing parent-facing accountability'

Chair: Carole Willis, CEO, NfER

Presenter: Professor Lorraine Dearden Director of the Education Sector, IFS, and Professor of Economics and Social Statistics at the Institute of Education, University London (IOE)

Responses from: Anastasia De Waal, Deputy Director, and Director of Family and Education, Civitas; Julian Astle, Policy Consultant, and former Special Adviser for policy to Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg


A well-functioning education market needs good quality measures by which parents and authorities can gauge school performance, and this is often held to be a key stumbling block for the progress of school choice reform. In theory, performance tables are supposed to help and there is some evidence that use of the information they is of benefit. However, raw test score data alone does not tell us anything about the relative effectiveness of schools or how their performance differs in relation to pupils’ varying prior ability. Efforts to capture this are ongoing; but even assuming that wider access to the wealth of data gathered from England’s schools enables the development of increasingly nuanced metrics, some argue that this data is never going to reliably predict schools’ future performance. Moreover, questions remain as to whether this information can be rendered in such a way as to be useful for parents. Despite recent government reforms, debate continues to rage over which subjects and kinds of qualifications should count towards the headline measures of school performance. Beyond curriculum choice, parents are clearly interested also in many other aspects of schooling, many of which are difficult to measure. Central government concerns about exploitation of the consumer disadvantage in respect of information about quality, and perhaps overridingly, with productivity, seem to have eclipsed these interests. The present accountability system is geared in large part to central government, rather than to empower parents as the final arbiters of quality and consequences. This panel session considers the challenges of quality measurement, information asymmetry, pathways to better provision, and what supporting measures might be required to support movement towards a properly consumer-led system.

Closing remarks from Neil McIntosh, CBE, CMRE President


You can view a full chair and speaker biographies here.