The evidence mounts that the choice agenda is unpopular, unfair and destructive

Francis Gilbert's picture
There are a few education stories in the media at the moment that have a common theme: they all illustrate quite powerfully that free markets erode standards in education in all sorts of ways. Furthermore, there's mounting evidence that this current government's obsession with choice in education is unpopular both with teachers and parents. A survey highlighted in this week's TES reveals that 80% of parents want their children to go to the local school. A lecturer at the London School of Economics, Dr Sonia Exley, who led the study said: "The survey reveals there is no great enthusiasm for choice and that people actually want for everybody to send their children to their local school. By providing more choice by creating new schools, all you are doing is shifting the problem. Giving the parents the option over where they send their child does not necessarily mean it will promote equality among schools." Another poll in the TES shows that teachers really don't like this government's policies either.

Echoing many of the views on the LSN, parents appear to want their children to go to a good local school without the headache of choice. While I sometimes find myself disagreeing with the editor of the TES, Gerard Kelly, I found this week's editorial surprisingly in tune with my own thinking. He points out rather eloquently that the school choice agenda just hasn't helped schools and has actually been quite destructive. This section was particularly striking to me: "Schools do not make good markets. The idea that more competition can provide greater parental choice has always been overcooked. And anyway, parents don't seem to want it. Also, geography inevitably limits the amount of schools, hence competition, an area can support. Then there is the teensy weensy problem of institutions that have distorted the market rather than played fair. Selective schools haul in the brightest pupils, for instance, and tend to shun the difficult and less academically gifted. They operate like uptight and upmarket nightclubs, picking the customers they want to serve."

Well said, Mr Kelly!

Equally, other educational free-markets have been proven to be failing. The debacle over the exam boards convening meetings in which the top people from the board tell their customers (teachers who have paid hundreds of pounds) what questions are coming up in the exam and show them egregious short-cuts has shown that the competition between the boards has led to a more dishonest system with those who have the cash and the know-how being the favoured ones. This is a complex issue which I've written about for the Guardian, but the underlying message here is that choice has undermined educational standards to a certain extent.

So it's becoming increasingly evidence this government's agenda of expanding free markets in education is just not working. Rather than consolidating what we've got and giving parents and teachers what they want: good local schools for all.

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Guest's picture
Sat, 10/12/2011 - 10:34


Have you been on the same cherry picking course as Janet?
Right next to your article about exams in the Guardian is an article entitled "The Public Favours Choice....etc", it goes on to report that public opinion favours school choice. More than two thirds (68%) agreed that parents should have this right.

Are you deliberately trying mislead?

Allan Beavis's picture
Sat, 10/12/2011 - 11:29

Guest -

Have you just glanced at the headline of the article and have you actually read it? If you have read, have the words and their meaning actually registered with your grey matter? The survey goes onto say:-

"But the study found that opinions had hardened when it came to making choices easier for poorer families.
Researchers sketched out the scenario of a parent on a low income who couldn't afford the bus fare to send their child to a more desirable school that was further from home. What should happen?
In 2007, 49% said the government should pay the bus fare. In 2010, just 33% supported this intervention.
More than six in ten said the child should go to his or her local school.
The study says: 'One explanation for this change might be that, while people think facilitating choice in this way is desirable during times of economic prosperity, they see it as a luxury and do not think it should be a priority during times of economic downturn, where cuts to public services are being made elsewhere.'
The British Social Attitudes survey was carried out last summer. The economic climate has grown more wintry since then."

Whilst this shows that surveys have to be conducted rigorously and fairly, so that people questioned are presented with different scenarios which may alter their response, it goes much further in underlining your scattergun and increasingly desperate approach to find evidence to counter what some people here are saying.

What is particularly risible is the rank hypocrisy with which you advance your cherrypicked, but usually vague and unsubstantiated, flights of fancy, as an increasingly flaccid instrument to flourish at an opponent you accuse of of misleading and cherry picking. I was wrong to invite you to come out and blink at the sun - I'd recommend you stay in your deep dank cave.

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 10/12/2011 - 11:45

Guest - it is always wise to look at reports cited in the media before jumping to conclusions based only on what is published in an article. The British Social Attitudes Survey showed that 68% of respondents did indeed believe parents had a "basic right" to choose schools. However, 63% said outright that parents should send children to their local school, and a further 22% said that parents should send children to their local school if schools were more equal in quality and pupil mix.

When asked about what was the most important priority for a school, 67% of respondents said that schools should "Make sure all children, however able they are, do the best they can". Only 4% said the top priority was making sure that parents have a lot of choice about the kind of school their child goes to.

The survey's conclusions included: "There is stronger support for prioritising
equality than for prioritising parental freedom" and "There should be freedoms for parents to put their child first, but these should be kept within reasonable bounds."

To summarise the survey's findings fully would take up too much space. However, a link to the chapter on school choice is here:

And Gerard Kelly's TES editorial is here:

Sonia Exley's picture
Sat, 10/12/2011 - 16:25

Dear Janet - this is indeed the most accurate representation of what the data said, and I personally believe that it supports many of Francis' points. Essentially, the public supports choice, but they don't seem to be very enthusiastic about it or believe it should be a government priority; they merely want the right to 'escape' if their local school seems problematic on grounds of 'quality' (which of course can mean many things) or 'social mix' (meaning an intense social segregation of disadvantaged pupils). I do think it is interesting that even with a 'motherhood and apple pie' question about choice such as asking whether parents should have a 'basic right to choose', still only 68 per cent agreed, meaning that many did not. In analysing the data I really did expect that there would be higher levels of agreement than this among the British public. 

Francis Gilbert's picture
Sat, 10/12/2011 - 21:03

Thanks Sonia for pointing out so succinctly the two reasons that parents want "choice": "quality" and "social mix". I think too often these two things can become very confused and are indeed very difficult to unpick. Children from more socially disadvantaged backgrounds do populate to a disproportionate degree so-called "failing" schools; a lack of "social mix" is frequently an important factor for under-achievement. But I think that the "social mix" issue trumps ultimately "quality"; parents from specific backgrounds will avoid schools of superior quality if they feel that there isn't a proper "social mix"; ie not enough of their "kind".

Leonard James's picture
Sat, 10/12/2011 - 17:31


Firstly I don't agree with blaming the free market for 'exam board cheats' since the market is simply, and obviously, providing the service its customers want. The fault lies with the educational policy makers (both Conservative & Labour) who created a target culture that encourages teachers to 'cheat' by gaming the examination system.

Secondly in your Guardian article you seemed to acknowledge the cheating problem 'I've attended plenty of meetings when there have been strong hints about upcoming questions' then played it down with your comments about examiners merely encouraging teachers to 'let students come up with their own ideas'. Despite this you argued that the exam boards are not doing enough to encourage 'originality' and ended by rightly pointing the finger at the 'system' for the sorry state of education in this country - this was confusing given the title of the article.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Sat, 10/12/2011 - 21:08

You're right to point out that I think there are complex reasons as to why "cheating" occurs: there is the big picture context of a system which is predicated upon high-stakes testing; then add in the free-market of the exam boards who want to please their punters; then add in the comments from examiners that they are reading "cloned" answers. Personally, I think we need to re-think the assessment system and make it much more formative; assessment should be there to highlight strengths and weaknesses of students and help them improve. At the moment the assessment system is doing too many things (holding teachers to account, creating school league tables, measuring student achievement, serving to prop up the latest government's agenda etc).

Leonard James's picture
Sun, 11/12/2011 - 08:35

I agree that a formative system is more likely to lead to schools doing the right thing by their students.

Playing devils advocate my question would be how does one hold teachers to account? I suppose one would have to demonstrate that they are acting in the interests of their students to encourage individual progress.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 11/12/2011 - 10:22

Leonard - re accountability. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) identified three "broad types of accountability" (p430 "Education at a Glance 2011" linked below).

1 Performance assessment (national exams and national assessment)
2 Regulatory accountability (complying with the law, school inspections, self evaluation)
3 Market accountability (user choice - OECD found that "while most countries permit diverse forms of school choice, in practice, the proportion of students practicing choice is more limited").

OECD also said (pp432-6 op cit):

1 "Performance accountability focuses on school outcomes rather than processes". In "Reforming Education in England" OECD warned that there was excessive emphasis on raw results in England*.
2 In 14 countries (those with available data) all shared exam data with pupils, 12 shared results directly with teachers and with parents, only 8 shared the results directly with the media.
3 National assessment: "the key purpose of assessments is to provide formative feedback to improve instruction and inform about the relative performance of students". But 4 of 19 countries used assessment results to "sanction or reward schools".
4 Market accountability presumes there is "diversity of options", accurate information about schools, and "limited ability to select or screen students".

In Finland, the top-performing European country, assessment of pupils is continuous and used to tailor courses to students. Unfortunately, as Francis points out above, in England the assessment system is used for too many conflicting reasons. And it's used as a tool with which to bash teachers and the English state education system.,3746,en_2649_39263238_48634114_1_1_1_1,...

*Not available freely, although a free "preview" can be downloaded from:

Francis Gilbert's picture
Wed, 14/12/2011 - 00:10

Yes, I think it's a good point; holding teachers to account is important, but let's find the right measures. I think state schools recently have become much better about having mechanisms whereby teachers are monitored for marking work, delivering good lessons, being continually observed and coached to do better. Teachers need formative assessment too!

Leonard James's picture
Thu, 15/12/2011 - 06:33

In my experience 'delivering good lessons' means teaching what Ofsted considers to be a good lesson and 'continual observation' and 'coaching' the language of the head who is a checker of teachers rather than a manager of a school. Formative assessment from someone who can't teach or can't manage is simply destructive.

What needs continual monitoring isn't teachers it is the system that they are working in.

Allan Beavis's picture
Thu, 15/12/2011 - 08:40

You're right Leonard. The system they are working in at the moment is completely fragmented, chaotic and destablised, with sudden diktats about curriculum changes, floor targets, threats of closure, "incentives" to Academise, different pay and working conditions, even people coming into their profession and teaching with no qualifications, being cast adrfit from the LA, having their profession denigrated by Gove, Ebacc...

Adrian Elliott's picture
Wed, 14/12/2011 - 10:24

,And it’s used as a tool with which to bash teachers and the English state education system.

I think its about more than finding the right measures Francis. We aren't even at the stage where the press and ministers tell the truth about the measures which are being currently used. As Janet has pointed out the the conference in New York was ignored because it might show English schools in a positive light. Any news which might be to the credit of state schools will rarely be published in a Murdoch,Mail or Telegraph group .
Its what papers don't publish because it conflicts with their political agenda or the interests of their proprietors or senior staff which is the real scandal.

I was watching the Levenson enquiry the other day and wondering whether, in the more than half century I have been reading newspapers, I have ever read (or read about) a newspaper publishing a critical story about the private life of the editor or proprietor of another paper: excluding, of course, those which appear after they have gone to jail or fallen off yachts.

Leonard James's picture
Sun, 18/12/2011 - 09:17

I was describing the operating system of individual schools. The complaint about the entire school system could have been made to some degree at anytime during the last fifty years.

Allan Beavis's picture
Sun, 18/12/2011 - 09:23

The complaints have been made, Leonard James, and are still being made. Where have you been? It is easy to educate the already advantaged. The challenge is to raise standards for everyone else and this where successive governments have failed, to varying degrees, to tackle the problem. Labour did a bit better last time round. Education under the Tories under Thatcher and Major was absolutely dire.

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