Despite some costly and embarrassing setbacks that threatened to cast a dark shadow over the start of the new academic year, Michael Gove may breathe a sigh of relief as 55 of his new free schools have completed their first full fortnight of the new school term.
But the anxious wait is far from over: with his announcement in July that at least 100 more such schools have received government approval to open from next September onwards, the next twelve months will be crucial for the Education Secretary who is under significant pressure to ensure that his radical free schools project delivers all of the positive results that have been promised of it.
Supporters of the project are confident though. In a recent copy of The Times, Philip Collins – former Chief Speech Writer to Tony Blair - took aim at all of those “critics willing their failure” in his piece contending that “opposition to free schools is nonsensical”. Seeking to dispel all remaining doubt (and echoing countless statements made by Gove on the issue), he hinges his case on four main claims: free schools bring in new money and new ideas; they tailor what they do to what parents want; they transfer power from the bureaucracy to parents and teachers; and, most significant of all, by doing all of these things they perform the single most important public good – they raise standards. Case closed, then?
Not quite. The problem with this notion that decentralization and free schools raise standards is that it is premised on the false idea that our school system can be improved by introducing a sort of quasi-market mechanism.
British consumers, for example, benefit from a privatized supermarket system in which various different chains compete with each other in order to attract the most customers: Sainsbury’s keeps its prices down because it knows that if its goods become too expensive, its customers will choose to go to the Tesco down the road instead. Gove and his proponents believe that our school system can work according to the same principle: if you decentralize and allow private companies, teachers and parents to set up their own schools, then other schools in the area - now faced with competition – will be forced to improve the product that they offer in order to retain their pupils, or they will simply wither and die. Standards are thus driven up.
As countless research studies have shown, however, the reality of these neat theoretical moves is that they don’t actually deliver empirically. Why? Because, in practice, a number of the assumptions that we make when we imagine our school system to operate like a market simply don’t hold.
Demand side mechanisms – parents and choice
On the demand side, for example, we assume that parents will exercise choice given the option and that they will do so equally and rationally. That is, standards will rise because all parents will actively seek the ‘best’ (highest quality) school available, even if that means moving their child from an underperforming school to a better one.
As a 2010 paper entitled ‘Markets in Education’ written by Waslander, Pater, and van der Weide for the OECD shows, however, these assumed mechanisms on the demand side of the education market are less than straightforward. While large numbers of parents do indeed exercise choice when given the option, not all parents exercise choice equally – rather, choice is strongly related to socio-economic background with different subgroups of parents being over- and under-represented. In particular, they found that more affluent and well-educated parents are more likely to exercise choice, alongside those parents who are more heavily involved in their child’s education.
Drawing on a study looking at attendance patterns of charter schools in the US, the paper also notes that; “white parents more often try to avoid schools with high proportions of minority and low-income students, while minority and religious groups may deliberately opt out for their own schools.” Given this finding, the assumption that all parents select schools on the basis of quality is also quite incorrect. Even in Britain it has been found that while academic factors are the most important stated reasons for school choice by parents, the best predictors for actual choice behaviour are the socio-economic and ethnic composition of schools (which may indicate that parents implicitly use school composition as indicators for school quality), as well as simply location, with less affluent parents giving more weight to a school’s proximity than its quality.
We can also say, then, that parents put unequal pressure on schools to improve. Those who have chosen a lower performing school because of its location rather than its performance indicators, for example, are less likely to move their child to a better school even if they know it is underperforming. Some will doubtless leave, but “the vast majority will not”: an indication that market mechanisms by themselves are unlikely to provide strong enough forces on the demand side of the market which could improve education standards in any substantial way.
Supply side mechanisms – Schools and competition
On the supply side, we assume that schools will naturally compete with their neighbours and that they will respond to competition by improving the education that they offer, yet neither of these assumptions automatically hold either. The introduction of market mechanisms may lead to greater cooperation between schools instead, and there is little empirical evidence to suggest that the most likely response to competition is improvement to the ‘hard core’ of the school – that is, to the quality of its teaching and learning. Indeed, a more likely response – as seen in Sweden, for example – is that schools will develop subtle selection techniques in order to exclude anyone who might damage their reputation.
Is this a market?
Our quasi-market school system does not deliver empirically, then, because it isn’t really a market at all. Indeed, the entire core of real markets – the pricing mechanism – is almost completely absent from our model: in our scenario, the ‘market’ is dominated by the state which forces everyone to take the product by law, and then funds 90% of places so that the upfront cost to parents is nil.
This highlights a second problem: for a market to function efficiently, neoclassical theory tells us that there must be elasticity of demand and supply, yet in our case the state is hardly willing or able to justify funding an excess of school places or teachers. In practice, then, successful schools can’t easily expand to match increasing demand as normal market forces would require and dictate.
Finally, it is entirely contrary to free market principles (forgetting about the evident exceptionalism of banks) for the state to step in and prevent a school from failing - yet this is exactly what happens. Instead of allowing a school to become so bad that even the most disinterested parents remove their children and force its closure, the local authority is far more likely to find itself under pressure to ‘turn it around’ with extra funding and attention. Failing schools are simply not allowed to wither and die.
So what does all this mean? For a start, it means that when Gove tells us that free schools are going to ‘raise standards’ by creating more local competition, he simply hasn’t done his homework. Study after study after study has shown that the effects of quasi-market policies on educational standards are so minimal as to be almost entirely insignificant.
But what it also tells us is that there is real reason to be concerned about the introduction of free schools into our education system. When parents are given more choice, the simple and uncomfortable fact is that we risk seeing even greater segregation between schools by ethnic, socio-economic, and ability groups. We can already see it happening: more than one third of the free schools scheduled to open from September 2013 will be faith schools, and over three quarters of last year’s free schools took fewer deprived pupils than their LEA equivalents.
Put plainly, Michael Gove’s free school project is a damaging and unnecessary step towards greater segregation within an already lamentably unequal state system. Those of us who oppose this are not lacking in sense as Philip Collins may like to believe: rather, we have looked at the best education system in the world and seen that it is built on socially diverse mixed-ability comprehensives, filled with highly trained and empowered teachers, and have reached the conclusion that that is the kind of system that we want all children in our society to have.