Is choice always a good thing? The story of the Towneys, the Burbs and the Sticks.

James Hargrave's picture
There is a lot of talk about "choice" in education at the moment. Parents should be able to "choose" which school they want to send their children to. Choice is automatically seen to be a good thing and what people want. That is just assumed. But is it?

Imagine the following scenario. It's a few years down the line and the "Towney" family live in inner London. They have a choice of four schools for their son. One is very academic. Another offers a faith ethos. One is staffed mainly by former soldiers and another is some kind of an "ecology" school. Three of these schools perform really well and the Towneys visit all of them and are pleased to be able to choose the most suitable school for their son.

The Towneys think choice is great and one weekend they meet up with their friends the "Burbs". The Burb family are not happy. They have just been looking at schools for their daughter Sue Burb and there are there are two choices. Ah says the Towneys I see your problem you only have two schools to choose between, what do you expect living out in the suburbs? But Mr Burb replies that that isn't the problem. The problem is that neither of the schools are any good so the choice is neither here or there.

The next weekend the Towneys travel out of London to meet their other friends the "Sticks". The sticks also have a son who is very excited about starting at his new High School in September. Mr Towney asked him if he liked it better than the other schools he looked at and the boy looks at him as if he is mad. What do you mean? I didn't look at any other schools. Towney eyes Mr Sticks with suspicion and asked him why. Well says Mr Sticks there is another school but there isn't an easy way to get there so we didn't have any choice. That's dreadful says Mr Towney you really should write to your MP. Why says Mr Sticks, the local school is excellent and all his friends are going there.

In this scenario two families are happy. The Towneys and The Sticks. The only unhappy family are the Burbs and they had a "choice". The Sticks had no choice but were still happy.

Now of course there could be many permutations of this story. Perhaps the only school that The Sticks could send their children to is not very good and they ended up unhappy.

But my point is choice and satisfaction are not the same thing. You can be satisfied without having a choice and dissatisfied but have a choice.

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Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 22/02/2012 - 09:28

There is also no established link between choice and educational outcomes. Recent research from Harvard concluded: "Market-based reforms such as school choice
or school vouchers have, at best, a modest impact on student achievement (Rouse 1998, Ladd 2002, Krueger and Zhu 2004, Cullen, Jacob, Levitt 2005, 2006, Hastings, Kane, and Staiger 2006, Wolf et al. 2010, Belfield and Levin 2002, Hsieh and Urquiola 2006, Card, Dooley, and Payne 2010, Winters forthcoming). This suggests that competition alone is unlikely to significantly increase the efficiency of the public school system."

The Harvard research confirmed the findings* of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) which said the evidence linking user choice with educational outcomes was "mixed", and noted that some high-performing school systems such as Finland offer very little choice.

*Economic Survey UK 2011 not freely available on the internet but details of how to obtain a copy are here:,3746,en_2649_34569_47283558_1_1_1_1,00...

This raises the question as to why the government promotes "user choice" if the evidence is inconclusive. One possible answer is that the government is keen to allow private organisations to be able to run English state schools for profit. Mr Gove made that clear before the last election although, of course, it was not widely publicised.

Rosemary Mann's picture
Wed, 22/02/2012 - 21:24

These are really good points. The other issue about ;choice' is whether it really exists and if so, providing enough options to give people 'choice' inevitably means an oversubscription to some and not enough for others which is inherently wasteful. Choice therefore is expensive to provide. The money is perhaps better put to use on something else. Such as direct investment into school and decaying schools buildings perhaps?

A guest's picture
Thu, 23/02/2012 - 09:55

The other issue is the Towneys may have a choice of four schools in inner London but they may not get into any of their choices. Their expectations have been raised and they have probably spent a lot of time visiting schools and deciding which one they wish to put first etc only to find they have not been successful.
We decided not to look at other schools and sent our children very happily to their local catchment school (city, outside London, at the time a school with some good features). Friends looked round many other schools, ignored the information that indicated they were not likely to be successful in applying to out of catchment schools and chose alternatives. The result was not only that they were unsuccessful but for some of them their child started at the catchment school feeling it was second best. One boy used to frequently announce to the whole class that the school was rubbish upsetting other children in the class. He eventually settled down and went on to achieve good results.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 23/02/2012 - 13:03

The word "choice" is actually a misnomer. Parents make three selections in order of preference. As a guest says above, "expectations are raised" - parents and children are disappointed when not allocated a place in the first preference school which in turn leads them to feel they are being fobbed off with second, or even third, choice.

Allan Beavis's picture
Fri, 24/02/2012 - 10:08

I totally agree.

Choice is a buzz word put out by the government and the Right in order to spin the idea that they have the solution to what they constructed as a crisis in education. Fed up with the local comp? Well – go to the Academy, which guarantees better results! Except they don’t, as recent posts on LSN have proved.

“Choice” extends of course to the expansion of selective schools, so perhaps “choice” is a more acceptable but less honest spin than “selection” because, well, the Tories have to pay lip service to pretending to treat everyone equally whilst at the same time rubber stamping policies –economic, in health and in education – that shows we are not “in it together” because actually the most vulnerable and poor are being hit the hardest and the upper echelons of the private sector and the financial services industry are doing swimmingly well.

This choice in education is not going to solve the deep rooted problems of why many children are, sadly, rooted in low attainment as a result of culture, poverty or other forms of deprivation or abuse. Finland has one of the most impressive educational systems in the world. Why? They tackled and eradicated poverty; they closed the income and the achievement gaps; they embedded equality in their society; they gave schools, teachers and communities respect, resources and real autonomy. Gove and Cameron are doing exactly the opposite and following an American model that has failed over 20 years and left American education unimproved and attainment amongst the poor no better. American capitalism is the example of “choice” with knobs on but the only people who have benefited and profited are private companies and philanthropists, who have been given “choice” as to where they can make money and how to influence politicians and policies. In Finland, it is the people who reap the rewards of an education and social policy offers choice, but all the options are the same excellent schools.

FJ Murphy's picture
Sun, 30/12/2012 - 17:48

Finland is a much more ethnically and socially homogeneous society than Britain, or less divided if you prefer. That might have something to do with their success. Btw, don't bother to call me a racist, as it's water off a duck's back, just an excuse not to engage in debate.

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