On 14 July 2016, the Prime Minister Theresa May announced her new Cabinet, following a significant reshuffle and re-structure of Government. In this context, researchers from all over Newcastle University express their thoughts on the challenges and opportunities for the Government in the Ideas for May’s Ministers blog series, considering how individuals, communities and societies can thrive in times of rapid, transformational change. Steve Humble and Prof Pauline Dixon from Newcastle School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences here consider choice in the education system.
To: The Rt. Hon Justine Greening, MP, Secretary of State for Education.
From: Steve Humble, MBE, Lecturer in Education and Professor Pauline Dixon, Professor of International Development and Education, Newcastle University.
Justine Greening has been given one of the toughest jobs in government. The current education system has been forged around the assumption that governments should regulate, fund and supply schooling. School reforms that challenge this assumption will be met with derision from those who benefit most from maintaining the status quo. Even when it may be in the interest of our children.
Following in Michael Gove’s footsteps, who has been called the ‘most radical education secretary of the past 50 years’, might engender caution. But, like him or not, Gove’s policies have seen an increase in parental choice.
Under Gove’s watch, over 60% of state secondary schools have become academies. Regarding GCSE results in 2015, 63% of children studying in converter academies achieved 5 A*- C GCSE grades compared with 55% in maintained schools. The performance of sponsored academies has been shown to increase more than the performance in similar maintained schools.[i] The research of Professor Steve Machin at the LSE suggests that schools that have been academies the longest have the greatest impact on improvement.[ii]
Free schools have been opening at a rate of knots, and there are now over 500 ‘open’ or ‘approved to open’ free schools which will create 330,000 new school places[iii]. In 2011 seven secondary free schools opened. The GCSE results in 2016, for these students who have completed their entire secondary education in a free school, show ‘stellar performances’ including 37% at the West London Free School achieving A*/A.[iv]
Choice has also been supported through more transparent league tables. Information on schools is now easily available and in the public domain. This allows parents to make informed decisions as they are able to access reliable information.
But was Gove right?
In every aspect of our lives we act as informed choosers so why does the idea of parental choice in schooling cause so much debate?
Giving parents the right to choose reflects our modern societal wishes for autonomy, control and self-expression; allowing parents a voice that can articulate their family values and the aspirations they have for their children. Choice promotes greater equity and opportunity for all households, not just those who can afford to live in the right postcode area.
So Justine Greening would seem to have it simple. One could advise her to sit tight, ride on the back of Gove’s policies for now and enjoy the calm after the storm.
But what to do? – Be bold and brave or bide one’s time?
If Justine Greening wants to be bold or brave her next step to increase choice is to introduce a universal top up school vouchers scheme.
In many countries around the world school voucher schemes exist. From Colombia to the US from Pakistan to Sweden research shows that choice, through vouchers, is raising education standards amongst the poor.[v]
In the 1980s Margaret Thatcher was close to introducing school vouchers, but held back believing that the public were not ready.
Are we ready now?
We’d advise the Rt Hon Justine Greening:
- Continue allowing for greater variety of school types;
- Instigate a top-up voucher system in the UK. Give every child in the country an educational voucher. This would give parents complete choice on where they want to send their children. If an educational establishment costs more than the voucher, then they can choose to pay the additional amount;
- Ask parents what they want. Commission household surveys in the UK to find out how and why, parents are choosing;
- Look at gold standard research from around the world to help inform UK educational policy.