24 October 2005
FORTHCOMING REFORM EVENT: AN EVENING WITH PJ O’ROURKE
Monday 7 November 2005, London
On Monday 7 November, Reform and the International Policy Network are co-hosting a reception and dinner with the author and satirist PJ O’Rourke – “the funniest writer in America” (Time, The Wall Street Journal).
For details, please contact Daisy Thornton (email@example.com; tel: 020 7799 6699). Sponsored tables and individual tickets are available.
§ Reform has today published a new study which shows that radical education reform, based on allowing parents to choose either state or independent schools at the taxpayers’ expense, is supported by a half of all voters and would create thousands of new schools.
§ The study, The potential benefits of real education reform in England, includes detailed research into the system of school choice in Sweden, held up last week by the former Minister Alan Milburn as a model for the forthcoming White Paper on secondary education. Sweden has seen a dramatic increase in the number of taxpayer-funded independent schools in all areas of the country, including rural and deprived areas. If the Swedish experience were to be replicated in England, real reform would lead to over 3,500 new schools in twelve years.
§ The study shows that the Government’s general election manifesto gives it the mandate it needs to introduce radical reform. But unless the key principle of reform is accepted – that taxpayers’ money can follow parental choice freely into the independent sector, allowing new schools to open according to parental demand rather than Local Education Authority decision – any change will be slow and any improvement limited.
§ The education White Paper, to be published tomorrow, will be the litmus test of the Government’s reforming ambition. The hints today, in particular in a speech by the Prime Minister, suggest that the White Paper will certainly move policy in the right direction but may fall short of full structural reform:
§ Tony Blair spoke of “opening up the school system so that good schools can rapidly expand”, of making it “easier for parents to replace the leadership or set up new schools where they are dissatisfied with existing schools” and of local authorities “moving from provider to commissioner”. But there was no mention of Swedish-style change.
§ On deregulation, the Prime Minister said that schools “will be able to have academy style freedoms” i.e. freedom to set the curriculum and set teacher pay and conditions. This implied that the freedoms will not apply to all schools (as with Grant-Maintained status).
§ Reform will publish a detailed analysis shortly after the White Paper is published tomorrow afternoon.
1. Radical education reform would see over 3,500 new schools open in England
§ New Reform research has today shown that radical education reform, based on allowing parents to choose either state or independent schools at the taxpayers’ expense, is supported by a half of all voters and would create thousands of new schools.
§ The Reform report, The potential benefit of real education reform in England, shows that the Prime Minister and other senior Labour figures have said that a key objective for this Parliament is to increase the number and variety of state schools in England. They have argued for barriers to the opening of schools to be removed and for new schools to be run by private and voluntary providers.
§ This objective is right. At present the provision of schools and school places is not demand-led by parents but centrally planned by Local Education Authorities. The effect of planning decisions over the last two decades has been to reduce the number of schools and to limit the choices available for parents. Since 1984, the total number of state schools has fallen by 13 per cent (a fall of 3,267 schools) in a time of rising pupil numbers.
§ Prior to 1992 the Swedish school system was very similar to the current English system. After 1992, control was devolved to local councils which were required to fund parental choice of independent or state schools. The result has been a fivefold increase in the number of independent schools, from 107 to 576.
§ The number of independent schools has grown in every region of Sweden including the most rural areas and the most deprived areas.
§ Speaking last week, the former Minister Alan Milburn called on the Government to implement Swedish style education reform, combined with a deregulation of state education: “The forthcoming White Papers [are] so important. They are a critical test of new Labour’s ability to set the future agenda. If the education White Paper learns from Swedish reforms and American charter schools by giving parents – particularly the poorest – the power to choose, then we will pass the test” (Alan Milburn, The Independent, 18 October 2005).
§ If the Swedish experience were to be repeated in England, 3,750 new schools would open in England within 12 years, an increase of 16 per cent on the current level. On average there would be 25 new schools per LEA (7 new schools per Parliamentary constituency). The fall in the number of schools over the last twenty years would be reversed.
§ Reform also released an ICM poll which found:
– 76 per cent of the public agreed that “the way we run state education in the UK is in need of fundamental review”. 73 per cent of Labour voters agreed.
– 49 per cent of voters thought that it would be a good idea if “parents should be allowed to use the government money spent on their children’s education (around £5,500 a year per child) to send their children to any school they choose, including independent schools”. 23 per cent thought that it would be a bad idea. Support was highest and opposition lowest among 18-24 year-olds (63 per cent against 15 per cent) and 25-34 year-olds (56 per cent against 13 per cent). 48 per cent of Labour voters thought that it would be a good idea, with 23 per cent saying that it would be a bad idea.
§ Reform’s Director, Andrew Haldenby said:
– “Voters are right to support real education reform because it will transform the opportunities and choices available to parents. If the forthcoming White Paper meets the benchmark of real reform – that taxpayers’ resources will pay for children’s education whether in the state or independent sector – it will be the biggest advance in education policy for a generation. If it does not, the best that can be expected is marginal improvement little different from the current trend” (Press Association, 24 October 2005).
– “We have published new research on Sweden, where a school choice system exists. The Government will fund parents to send their kids to either state or independent schools. In that system there has been a tremendous flourishing of new independent schools: 500 new schools in Sweden over ten years; the equivalent to 4000 new schools in England. That has provided a much better range of choices and standards have risen in both the state and independent schools” (BBC Radio 4, Today, 24 October 2005).
§ The Reform report and accompanying papers are available at www.reform.co.uk.
2. The education White Paper
– The education White Paper, Higher standards, better schools, will be published tomorrow afternoon. The Prime Minister sought to “set the White Paper in context” with a speech to parents at 10 Downing Street today. In the light of his speech and media coverage hitherto, the White Paper will certainly move policy in the right direction but may fall short of full structural reform.
New schools to open
§ The ability for new schools to open in response to parental demand, as in Sweden, is a precondition for raising standards. Speaking this morning Andrew Haldenby said:
“What the Government appears to be planning could be one of the biggest steps forward in education policy for a generation. One of the problems that has bedevilled our education system is that there has been a lock on the creation of new schools and the ability of good schools to expand. That has failed to introduce pressures and incentives within the system for schools to improve as parents decide between the range of schools that are in front of them” (BBC Radio 4, Today, 24 October 2005).
§ Tony Blair offered some hope of this, saying: “We need to see every local authority moving from provider to commissioner, so that the system acquires a local dynamism responsive to the needs of their communities and open to change and new forms of school provision.”
§ But the only specific example given was that parents could establish their own schools if they were dissatisfied with the current choices: “It should be easier for [parents] to replace the leadership or set up new schools where they are dissatisfied with existing schools.”
§ The Prime Minister suggested that independent schools should find it easier to return to the state sector and become taxpayer-funded. While this may increase the choices of parents at current state schools, it is not as beneficial as enabling new taxpayer-funded independent schools to emerge.
Expansion of good schools
§ It is also essential that good schools can expand. In his speech, Tony Blair said: “And if parents are to have real power and choices, we must also open up the school system so that good schools can rapidly expand and extend their influence.”
§ The Prime Minister said: “All schools will be able to have academy style freedoms.” This would imply the freedom to set their own curriculum and to set teachers’ pay and conditions. This is a valuable reform.
§ The media coverage has suggested that new state schools will be established as independent charitable trusts, with the freedoms described above. Existing secondary schools will be given the option to take on this status.
§ Reform will publish a detailed analysis of the actual White Paper proposals shortly after its publication.
3. The need for structural reform
§ Appearing on Today this morning, Estelle Morris, the former Secretary of State for Education, said:
“I don’t think it (the state education system) needs a radical structural reform. I think it is much improved since 1997 …. It is right that heads manage schools, and of course they need autonomy to spend the money how they want and to run the school as they see fit” (BBC Radio 4, Today, 24 October 2005).
§ Estelle Morris is wrong to suggest that the state education system is not in need of structural reform. The weaknesses of the system – an insufficient number of good school places and burdensome central regulation – stem directly from the structure of the current system which is planned, by central and local government, rather than changing dynamically according to the decisions of parents and teachers. While there has been a slow improvement in examination results in recent years, only 40 per cent of 16 year-olds achieve GCSE grades A*-C in the core subjects of English, maths and science.
§ A particular consequence of the structure of the state school is profound inequity. A child in receipt of free school meals is half as likely to achieve five or more A*-C GCSEs (or equivalent) than a child not in receipt of free school meals. Speaking on Today this morning, Andrew Haldenby said:
“At the moment it is children in deprived areas who do badly out of our current system. Let us not forget that in our current system school choice does exist for better-off parents, who are able to buy private education or to move into catchments areas of good state schools …. These reform ideas above all are about the deprived areas where children in this country can expect to do about half as well, in terms of GCSE performance, as those in better off areas” (BBC Radio 4, Today, 24 October 2005).