A Case for School Choice
In all the excitement over the Gurkahs and MPs’ expenses this week, it was easy to miss Gordon Brown’s conversion to school choice. ‘Choice’ is short hand for switching funding the supply of school places, to funding demand. This means that state schools get paid for each pupil they educate but parents choose the school they want. If there is not enough space (insufficient supply), new schools open up. If schools underperform, parents flee them and, just like a business, they go bust.
Choice is attacked for entrenching social divisions. Critics say pointy-elbowed, middle class parents would push their kids into the best schools, leaving kids from the estate down the road to settle for leftovers. Teaching unions hate it warning of back door privatisation. Others argue that choice will never work in rural areas, where there is only one school to choose from.
Both are wrong. Progressives should support choice, for five reasons:
1. The nightmare picture of middle classes grabbing all the good school places under choice already happens– ‘selection by mortgage’. If you want a good school place, you buy it by moving to the right catchment area.
2. Choice can be made progressive by skewing the funding per child so schools get more cash if they accept poorer children, as the Conservatives and Lib Dems have proposed.
3. Past choice systems have been hard to navigate, usually resulting in middle class parents cracking the system, leaving others behind. But the internet changes that. Websites make it easier to compare statistics on school performance and make it easy to compare qualitative information too.
4. We know choice works in rural areas, because its most successful application has been Sweden, a country of thousands of dispersed villages.
5. Choice goes a long way. Julian LeGrand, who is on the Demos Advisory Council, has demonstrated that in health, even if only 10 percent of patients choose where to have their operation, that galvanizes the rest of the system to raise its game.
Our current education system is deeply unfair. Progressives should hold Gordon Brown to his promises this week.