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CMRE Forum working lunch, 6th April 2016

‘The future of school choice’: a report on CMRE’s ‘School Choice UK’ focus week

CMRE has been at the forefront of efforts to disseminate research exploring the potential of market-oriented solutions to improve education, focusing, in particular, on the role of incentives. International evidence indicates that increasing school choice — and thereby diversity and competition among schools — can have a transformative effect on education provision. With a view to raising awareness of the research and exploring policy options and overall viability, in January of this year CMRE convened a ‘School Choice UK’ focus week. The week comprised of CMRE’s annual Friedman Lecture, a day conference, and a number of fringe events, which were attended by representatives of over 60 think tanks and research organisations.

At lunchtime on 6th April, members of CMRE’s executives’ policy forum and guests from the world of education gathered to discuss areas of consensus, divergence, and challenge that emerged during the course of the week. During the lunch meeting, particular attention was paid to the conference, which had focused on school choice, opportunity, and equity.

CMRE’s Executive Director, James Croft, began by discussing areas of consensus that had emerged from school choice week: essentially, school choice was considered to be a good thing, but needed support from the overall accountability framework. There was wide recognition of ways in which parents are dis-incentivised from engagement, however; James admitted to being troubled by the lack of concern shown about the effects of central government’s steady appropriation of oversight and accountability. School choice, he insisted, should not be ‘eclipsed by structural reforms’.

James then discussed central themes arising from the focus week: the limited nature of choice in the UK; the rationing of choice in the present system and implications for equity; and how to optimise choice.  

He pointed out that while the situation at the primary stage is better, most people don’t have a good choice of good secondary schools, especially in rural areas. Where there is choice, the majority of parents don’t make full use of preference options: a high proportion only express a first preference. The tendency to choose the nearest school ‘by default’ — regardless of quality, and despite there being a local higher-performing school with spare places — is strongest among FSM-eligible pupils. A sizeable minority of parents do actively choose, but 15% of children do not get their first preference school. There is also significant regional variation, and a clear information-supply issue affecting less well-off families. A key question arising from the conference is whether the lack of parental engagement comes from parents’ preferring local schooling, or because supply-side constraints have led to a rationing of choice.

Turning to rationing of choice in the present system, James reflected on agreement among conference participants that supply-side constraints mean choice is rationed — although there was some hesitancy about some of CMRE’s more radical proposals to induce greater competition.

Choice is rationed in the UK system in two ways: selection and proximity-based admissions. On selection, the conference elicited a range of views: some argued against selection on any criteria; others supported special provision for certain types of student. From CMRE’s perspective, there is little evidence to suggest selection on ability has strong direct effects on achievement, when socio-economic background factors are taken into account. It has the disadvantage of being susceptible to gaming, with attendant consequences for equity.

Choice is also rationed via proximity-based admissions. Local schooling gives middle classes the advantage via the house-price premium – to increase equity we need to break this link. James asked how we could overcome the distorting effect of residential sorting in a proximity-based system, having discussed this in a recent Schools Week piece. Evidence for the effect of choice on residential segregation and educational inequality is clear, and has been presented in a CMRE report entitled Dis-location, by Gabriel Heller Sahlgren, CMRE’s Director of Research. Institutionalised school choice decreases residential segregation, which exercises a far greater influence on outcomes than between-school differences. This doesn’t mean the net effect of choice is zero; overall, choice probably increases between-school differences, but this is  inevitable given the matching effect. Higher enrolment in publically-funded private schools increases equity by decreasing the influence of family background. Evidence suggests that pupils from different backgrounds benefit from school choice to roughly the same degree. Institutionalising school choice has a mixing effect, overcoming geography to give parents from all backgrounds more equal opportunities to choose good schools.

James then discussed the optimising of choice. Dr Rebecca Allen, lead panelist in the conference session on admissions reform, had argued that preserving the benefits of local schooling ought to be a starting point for reforms to improve equity, but that equity could be improved via lotteries in cases of oversubscription. Her respondent, Dale Bassett, wanted a transition to open admissions. Better information provision would be required to stimulate choice: a more explicit voucher mechanism; removal of default allocation (explored in later sessions); and investment in school transportation. But Bassett questioned whether this would be enough to overcome our heavily-centralised government accountability arrangements. Development of a ‘Parent Portal’, as promised in the recent government White Paper, sounds promising but would be a formidable challenge, James posited. In any case, it would probably never yield a sufficiently full perspective on the quality of schools that parents have to choose between, for which other sources of information would be needed. A key argument in favour of selection by choice as the principal mechanism is that parents have to make trade-offs between ‘hard’ (academic) schooling quality and ‘softer’ aspects of quality.

Ultimately, as several contributors argued at the conference, more radical attention to the supply side is required. This is consistent with CMRE’s recommendations in two of its publications Incentivising Excellence and in Vouchers for England. Commenting on an experiment in Tel Aviv, Professor Victor Lavy was adamant that failed schools had to be allowed to close. Dr Olmo Silva elaborated that this meant phasing out minimum guarantees, and that, without more evidence that fee-charging schools perform better than state schools, it is difficult to make a case for voucher subsidy. A scheme allowing parents to top up fees is, he argued, difficult to justify — the children of middle-class parents being the principal beneficiaries. However, there is clearly a case for introducing a profit motive. There is no evidence that in other places this has had a negative impact on quality. It does not discriminate, and can overcome barriers to provision for the disadvantaged.

James concluded that barriers to new schools still seemed formidable, as testified by battles to open free schools. Constraints on space and road access act as a natural brake on development, and further relaxation in planning law. However, opening the system to private investment would bring resources to bear responsively in relation to demand. In its proposals to rationalise governance at the MAT level, the White Paper offers scope for further exploration of outsourcing, whereby not-for-profit trusts provide governance, while subcontracting the business of running their schools to education management organisations (EMOs).

James’s talk was followed by a chaired discussion. This opened with a comment from a forum member on differences in attainment between ethnic groups: some profiles of student performed at consistently high levels, regardless of geography. How did such groups manage to ‘break the location issue’? Focus then turned to the White Paper’s proposals for system-wide academisation, with one guest suggesting this would lead to a ‘national state education system’. The terms of Academy Articles of Association and Funding Agreements, he said, opened the way for central government appropriation of school improvement strategy. Another guest highlighted how the White Paper was entirely focused on supply-side reform. Little was offered in the way of parent-facing accountability, but admissions reform to release demand might provide an answer. There was a good case for scrapping the Admissions Code in favour of open admissions, unlimited preferences, and lotteries — a lack of political interest in this seemed at least partly owing to confusion over how it would play out for parents. A guest who had been involved in the drafting of the original Admissions Code said it exemplified how ‘cast iron ideas [could] look good on paper’, but were often ‘unworkable’. Another forum member commented that, as an Academy Trust CEO, her experience of using lotteries when schools were oversubscribed had been roundly positive: it was a simple and fair system, which parents could readily understand.

There was broad support for the view that parents weren’t being sufficiently consulted over school choice: this should be a government priority, and undertaking a national survey could be more straight forward than often claimed. A guest, who had been involved in as yet unpublished research in the area, said it was clear that a large minority of parents valued location over other factors. Was this owing to a lack of understanding of how the system worked? Or was it simply wanting their children to attend the local school? If the latter, the guest said, the introduction of lotteries might frustrate their wishes. Regardless, there was definitely work to be done on explaining the preference system.

Discussion then turned to ‘removing the bad choice option’: if bad schools were shut, then, even if choice wasn’t possible, children would have a greater chance of success. Gabriel suggested closing schools might be ‘politically unpalatable’ when there was a lack of school places – the only answer to which was more dynamic supply. Research supports the case for closing the worst schools, and maximising choice elsewhere, and general consensus was reached that it was better for pupils if bad schools were shut (in practice, meaning a ‘managed takeover’, along the lines of with Sponsored Academies).

In conclusion, James said the greatest challenge to reform was shifting politicians and policymakers from their bedrock beliefs that education is too complex and important to be trusted to parents and providers. There is a pervasive paternalism evident in government and the civil service that needs to be addressed.

There are clear messages that policymakers should take from this.

  • International evidence indicates that school choice and competition can be transformative for education outcomes, but only if supported by other measures to align incentives accordingly.
  • The government should identify ways in which parents are dis-incentivised from engaging effectively with their children’s education. School choice should not be eclipsed by structural reform.
  • Limitations on school choice in the UK mean it only acts as a meaningful lever on standards in some contexts. There is significant regional variation, a clear information supply issue that affects less well-off families in particular, and — at the same time — a significant degree of unsatisfied demand. Admissions should — as far as possible — be predicated on fair access to the application pool; the middle-class advantage that inheres in the nature of proximity-based admission should be addressed. 

  • Equity could be improved via transition to decision by lottery when schools are over-subscribed. 

  • Going further, the idea of scrapping proximity-based admissions entirely should be addressed more seriously. Responsibility for transport costs to enable access to schools of choice needs careful consideration, but distance from the school is a matter primarily for parents. 

  • An ‘open admissions’ system would need to be supported by better information provision, a requirement for parents to express their preferences in full, and — probably — a more explicit voucher mechanism. 

  • Most fundamentally, however, supply-side reforms are needed to improve choice significantly. Evidence points to the most significant gains arising as a result of increased competition (as stressed by Professor Paul Peterson in CMRE’s Friedman Lecture, this year), and there is scope for harnessing the profit motive to meet requirements of particular contexts. 
Finally, Academy Trust outsourcing of provision to education management organisations should be encouraged, with governance at the Trust level. 

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