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Category archive: School choice

Tuesday July 29 2008


Dear Brian,

I saw today’s Ask Slashdot question: How Do You Fix Education?, and thought of you.

This comment mentions making going to school non-compulsory.


Thanks Rob.

The commenter says: (1) Make going to school non-compulsory; (2) Privatize; (3) Do away with tenure and teachers unions; (4) Allow parents to take their kids out of failing schools.  He ends:

Before you reply, or mod down, ask yourself this. If given an unlimited amount of money for schooling your own child, would you send them to a public school, or a private school? If you opted for the private school, you’ve already agreed with many points on this list, even if you won’t admit that to yourself.

I think this is a category error.  Personally, I agree with the list of proposals, apart from (3) the union thing.  What does “do away with” mean?  Make unions illegal?  If so, then: no.  If it means allowing schools to make union membership a sacking offence, then yes.  If you don’t like that kind of school, don’t teach there.

But, putting that uncertainty to one side, the question concerns how you would change the whole system to something that would be good for everybody.  What you would now do or would like like to do for you own child, with the system unchanged, is a different question.  A major point of libertarian thinking, such as this is, is that all individuals deciding for themselves would aggregate into a good (or best available in the real world) system for all.  I think that’s right.  And a major point of collectivism is that this is not right.  Who is right about that is not illuminated by asking what any individual would personally do to escape the present mess.

This is the same argument as the one that says that socialist politicians who send their kids to private schools are being hypocritical, by revealing their true opinions to be different from their publicly stated opinions.  But thinking that private schools are now better is perfectly consistent with believing that state education could and should be changed until that is not so.  My argument with such politicians is that I think they are wrong about how to improve state education, wrong that it is capable of being improved.  I think they are quite right to do the best they can, now, for their kids.  Making your kids go to bad state schools, even when you can afford to do better, purely because you “believe in” state education, i.e. in state education being improvable at some point in the irrelevantly distant future ... now that is creepy.  I know I have said this before, but I think it’s a point worth repeating.

Thursday June 26 2008

Well I’m right to be taking my Swedish Lessons seriously, because this evening it was all over the news that David Cameron is going to introduce school choice like they have in Sweden.

Fraser Nelson has already been writing about this in the Spectator, on page 3 of this:

Michael Gove’s school reform policy would be at one and the same time the most politically exciting and (in terms of bureaucratic activity) least demanding act of a Cameron government. It simply promises to grant funding of the national average - by then about £6,000 per pupil - to any new schools that are set up. When enacted in Sweden, the reform was so successful after just four years that it was irreversible. The same prize awaits Mr Cameron.

Nelson says that the only problem will be cracking ahead quickly with the necessary legislation.  I haven’t finished trying to make sense of Cowen’s piece, but already I think I can see all kinds of potential problems with this policy.

Sunday June 22 2008

As already reported in this earlier posting, I have been reading Nick Cowen’s Civitas pamphlet entitled Swedish Lessons.  It consists of three chapters, the first being about Sweden’s education reforms, the second about Britain’s current educational problems, and the third proposes British solutions.  The chunk that follows is from chapter two, about what’s going wrong with British education.  Things aren’t that bad, says Cowen.  But they’re getting rather worse, and here (pp. 48-52) is one of the reasons:

GCSEs and A-levels, the current official indicators of what makes a good school and what defines a successful pupil, are bad measures of how well pupils are doing.  Yet the government treats exam results as a proxy for school productivity, with the Department for Schools, Children and Families, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) placing primary emphasis on good exam results representing success and achievement. Under this regime the actual skills and abilities of pupils come to be disregarded.

This problem becomes more acute when the interests of pupils come to be directly at odds with the interests of the school as judged by the exam and assessment system.  The continual drive to improve results creates a damaging incentive for schools to find qualifications that are likely to produce good results with the least amount of effort and talent.  General National Vocational Qualifications (GNVQs) taken at the same time as and often in lieu of GCSEs offers perhaps the most widely used ‘loophole’ used to drive up standards on paper while not actually tackling students educational outcomes.  Professor Smithers of the University of Buckingham’s Centre for Education and Employment Research found that thousands of students took courses in these ‘quasi-academic’ subjects, which include science, information and communication technology and business.  However, ‘entry to the more practically-sounding fields is miniscule.  Hospitality and catering, manufacturing, construction, retail and distributive trades, land and environment together account for only 1.2 per cent of the Intermediate GNVQ’. Indeed, over half of all the GNVQs taken are in the single subject, ICT.  Smithers has also noted that the influence these subjects have had on results is significant: ‘from 2001 the proportion achieving five good GCSEs themselves has plateaued at about 50 per cent and the increase [up to 2005] has been through intermediate GNVQs which count as four GCSEs’.  David Brown, a reitred head teacher, calculated that since GNVQs are valued so highly compared to GCSEs, studying the ICT GNVQ was 13 times as effective in boosting a school’s league table position as studying maths.

A-levels have suffered a similar commute to easier subjects that appear to offer improved results for schools.  From 1996 to 2007, the number of A-level entries has increased by nearly 100,000. However, this increase has not been reflected in traditional subjects.  In fact, many have declining numbers of entries: physics, French and German have all registered reductions of more than 4,000, 10,000 and 3,000 respectively.  By contrast, psychology has increased by 30,000; media & film studies by 16,000 and PE by nearly 12,000.

Officially, qualifications in all A-level subjects are worth exactly the same but, as Peter Tymms and Robert Coe of Durham University have demonstrated, some A-level subjects are less demanding than others: ‘It is perfectly clear from our research that two A-levels are not equal, with some more severely graded than others.’ Their research found that students with Bs in JSCSE history, economics, geography, English language and literature, sociology and business studies went on to attain C on average in the same subjects at A-level.  However, Coe and Tymms found that those with Bs in GCSE maths, computing, German, French, chemistry, physics and biology were more likely to get Ds at A-level.

The result is not just a case of students themselves choosing easier subjects.  There is evidence that some schools have been actively discouraging pupils from taking subjects that are deemed more challenging and are therefore less ‘safe’ for league table purposes.  An ICM survey commissioned by the Association of Colleges in 2006 showed that 55 per cent of students felt that teachers steer them towards courses in which their school does best, rather than what they needed.

It is hard to predict exactly what the long-term consequences of disregarding challenging subjects will be, but a number of experts have described their fears.  Richard Pike, chief executive of the Royal Society of Chemistry, has argued that schools are discouraging students from taking maths A-level.  He noted: ‘This contrasts starkly with countries like China, in which mathematics is seen as integral to the sciences and to the nation’s economy.’

David Hart, then general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, argued that ‘soft’ subjects may be helping students get into higher education but that ‘in the long term I’m not sure it does very much for their career prospects’.  Robert Kirby-Harris, chief executive of the Institute of Physics, has also argued that exams present a ‘crazy situation’ in which A-level students are opting for subjects which have ‘poor career prospects’.  In addition, Kathleen Tattersall, chair of the Institute of Education Assessors, has described how history, in particular, is becoming an endangered subject as more students opt for subjects such as media studies and photography.

The irony is that this focus on exam results and regulated assessment is meant to ensure high standards of teaching in all schools, but the flaws in the system have created incentives that act to undermine standards and to direct the efforts of both teachers and pupils in the wrong direction.  Of course, there are still very good teachers and some very good schools in the maintained sector, and there are many successful pupils.  However, the structures and incentives operating at the centre are working against those successful outcomes rather than for them.  It means, for example, that when a school begins to struggle, its first priority is not to concentrate on getting genuinely better outcomes for their pupils, but on creating better outcomes on paper, the ones that are acceptable to the central bureaucracy.

Hence, the very mechanism designed to assure some quality in every school has led, when implemented systematically, to a lower quality of education being generated in practice.

Monday June 09 2008


London: Britain is all set to get its first fully state-funded Hindu school by September 2009.

The Krishna Avanti Primary School in Harrow in north-west London, will have Scripture Reading, Vedic Math, Sanskrit and Yoga as part of its curriculum.

On Saturday, a traditional bhumi pujan ceremony was held before starting the construction of the £13.5-million project.

“This gives Hindu parents a choice. Parents from other religions have a choice so it’s fair that the Hindu parents, too, have an option,” says Nitish Gor of I-Foundation, a Hindu charity closely associated with the Hare Krishna Movement, which will run the school.

It’s the “fully state-funded” bit that I object to.  If these Hindus were paying for their own school, I’d have no objection.  But should the British state be paying for this kind of thing?  The report linked to and quoted above notes that some British teachers unions object to such schemes on the grounds that they divide communities.  I wonder.  I suppose much depends on what exactly they teach about the other bits of the community.

Also, what on earth is “Vedic Math”?

Sunday June 08 2008

Nothing from me today here, but there’s a recent posting by me at CNE Competition, which makes use of my Kings Cross Supplementary and Hammersmith Saturday experiences.

Sunday May 04 2008

imageThe mischievous mind of Alex Singleton turns the usual anti-lefty complaint on its head.

Saturday April 12 2008

Here‘s the story:

A council has used powers intended for anti-terrorism surveillance to spy on a family who were wrongly accused of lying on a school application form.

And here‘s what Nick Cowen of the Civitas Blog thinks about it.

Thursday April 10 2008

James Forsyth, at the Coffee House, talking about what the Conservatives have in mind for schools:

Once Gove’s supply-side reforms have been enacted, parents will be able to pick schools for their children rather than having the schools pick the pupils. Any school that isn’t up to scratch is simply going to see parents sending their children elsewhere.

In the short run, at least, I believe I see problems.

One of the most vital features of every good school I have ever attended, observed or heard of, is that (a) it has the right to refuse entry to pupils, and (b) it has the right to expel pupils who, despite repeated warnings, do not behave as the school wishes.

If a popular school does not have the right to refuse entry, does that mean that it has the obligation to educate as many children as want to go there, regardless of how crowded it gets, or of how much it is obliged to expand (even if it would prefer not to expand, thank you very much)?  Ludicrous.  Places at any particular school must be rationed.  To demand anything else would be insane.  The right to reject has to be there, if only to reject those towards the back of the queue, regardless of any judgments made of individual pupils in that queue.  (Not that there is anything wrong with doing that, either.)

What of the right to expel?  If schools do not have the right to expel, a lot of good parents, of (at least potentially) well-behaved children, are going to be disappointed, because discipline in the schools they choose will surely be as bad as ever.  Good schools do not use the expulsion threat wantonly or routinely, but it has to be there.  You cannot alter unacceptable behaviour if, actually, you are obliged to accept it.

In the very short run, supply will be what it is now, and I do agree that this may change.  But how soon?  Are the Conservatives ready for the toughing-it-out period that they will surely face, while new schools laboriously lumber towards the new market, finding somewhere to operate, getting local permission to operate, having been reassured that the rules have changed.  Again, will they so lumber?  Will they be so reassured?  They could lose a lot of money and waste a lot of effort if they are promised rights that they end up not having.  Remember, getting politics out of something is itself a political process.

And what of the parents of children who do get expelled?  They are now being promised “the school of your choice”.  Not only will they not get the school of their choice - see above - but they are liable not to get any school at all, if the right to reject and to expel is taken seriously.

I favour schools having the right to reject and expel.  But part of the reason I favour this is that I favour certain “customers” being handed the unwelcome news that no teacher of the usual sort wants anything to do with their children until they behave at least somewhat better than they are behaving now.

So, will the government simply take charge of all these miscreants?  If it doesn’t, the voters will get very agitated.  If it does, it will need many more juvenile miscreant hutches than it now has.

Here to, even in the most low-end part of the market, I believe that the market will, eventually, if allowed to, supply far better answers than the state does now, in the form of more sports oriented, more militaristic, more open air and shouty schools such as more vigorously feral juveniles might improve in and become civilised in.  A sort of free market answer to all that talk about bringing back national service.  But, will the politicians be willing to wait for such things to happen?

I’m no politician, so I naturally favour honesty about these things, rather than politics.  At present, the way it seems to me is that for many, if the Conservatives attempt what they say they will attempt, things will get worse before they start getting better.  So will mere politics be good enough?  It will probably be good enough to help the Conservatives win their next election.  But will it be good enough to win the winning, so to speak, and actually make education in Britain get any better?  My questions are not rhetorical.  I’m genuinely asking, and am open to the idea that I have missed all kinds of answers that will sooth my fears.  As so often, much of the point of this posting is to remind me of the state of my thinking just now.  And as for those reading over my shoulder, so to speak, I won’t be able to say: I said that!  But, I may be able to say: I did wonder about that.

Choice cuts both ways
On choice and inequality
Madsen Pirie on how choice also helps the poor and weak