What Britain’s experience teaches about school choice

The largest study of school choice is taking place in England and Wales. In 1988, the Education Reform Act gave families the right to request any public school for their child and denied schools the right to refuse any student until their admission limit was reached. By 1994, every high school student was enrolled in a school of his or her choice. Funding follows students, making this effectively a national voucher system.

Analysis to date reveals that the socioeconomic stratification of schools declined after choice was introduced, but is increasing again in recent years. Standards in public schools have risen relative to private schools over the same period.

Proponents of school choice believe it has three main advantages over school assignment. First, they say, choice is something the public wants. Second, choice extends a privilege to all families that was previously available only to those able to pay for private schooling, and it also breaks the grip of zoning on education. Third and most important to choice advocates is their claim that market forces will drive up educational standards. 

Stephen Gorard, John Fitz, and Chris Taylor, professors at Cardiff University, Wales, summarize the evidence relating to these purported advantages. They interviewed educational administrators throughout England and Wales and collected data from official statistics for each school, including examination results, number of pupils on the roll, absences, number eligible for free lunch, ethnic percentages, percentage of students whose first language is other than English, and special-education needs.

School composition

The data showed that there were significant changes in school composition over the decade since school choice was implemented. The degree of socioeconomic stratification in all secondary schools, as measured by the percentage of students eligible for free lunch, declined from 1989 to 1996.

Since 1996 it has been rising again, but has not reached 1989 levels. However, when ethnicity, first language, and specialeducation needs are considered, it becomes clear that secondary schools are now more diverse than they were in 1989. The same is true for elementary schools. Despite this more-diverse mix that indicates shifting student populations, Gorard et al. found no evidence that choice caused less popular schools to fail.

Most schools increased their average number of students, even if they were less desirable in their local school market because the number of students increased overall while the number of schools decreased. These researchers identified only one school that both lost market share and had a growing number of students from poor families.

Change in school outcomes

The most commonly used measures of secondary school outcome in the United Kingdom are the General Certificate of Secondary Education tests. Each year, 95 percent of 15-years-olds take at least one of these tests. Grades on these tests rose in the last decade after choice was introduced. The percentage of students obtaining good grades (A-C) on these tests increased from 22.6 percent in 1975 to 46.4 percent in 1998. The increases have been larger after the introduction of school choice. These researchers, however, are unable to attribute this increase solely to market forces, for many other educational reforms were taking place at the same time.

Other confounding factors include changes in the collection of data, in the age group taking the tests, and in the tests themselves. In an effort to find a control group against which to measure the effect of school choice, these researchers compared public school outcomes during this period with private
school outcomes.

About seven percent of students in England attend private schools. This data reveals that public schools have been catching up with private schools at all levels during the past decade. The most recent figures from 2001 show this trend continuing.

However, Gorard et al. caution that they have no dataon how the private-school population may have changed during this period.

Despite this positive trend, students from poor families continue to score lower than their more advantaged peers. Ninety percent of the variance in school
outcomes can be explained by the background characteristics of students and the nature of their schools. This figure has remained constant. These researchers conclude, therefore, that the most effective way to tackle inequality in education is by addressing poverty itself.

The variation between schools is very small — much smaller than within schools — so strategies aimed at schools rather than individuals are likely to fail. Nevertheless, differences in achievement between several social groups are declining. Differences between the highest and lowest achievers, ethnic groups, and boys and girls have all declined. The system as a whole is becoming more equitable despite its apparent inability to overcome the effects of poverty. Schools now reflect the wider society more than the neighborhood where they are located.

Understanding these findings

Education in the United Kingdom appears to be moving in the right direction, but Gorard et al. suggest that there may be more than one explanation for these findings. Market forces have worked to the extent that they have allowed students from poor families to attend schools in areas where they cannot afford to live and have encouraged schools to concentrate on improving examination scores.

These researchers point out, however, that this is part of a larger trend of improvement that began after the Second World War. The reduction in social stratification in public schools may be due either to this open enrollment policy or to a reduction in housing stratification during the same period. School reorganizations that have taken place during this period may have affected school populations in unknown ways. Despite these possible confounding variables, Gorard, Fitz, and Taylor draw the following conclusions from the data on school choice. The school system in England and Wales is fairer now that it was in 1988, but this trend appears to be reversing. Market forces, however, have not led to the kind of increased stratification that some opponents of choice had feared.

The simple market-outcomes model does not appear to be valid. Choice is not free of the influences of socioeconomic forces, but it is no worse and probably is significantly better than simply assigning students to their nearest school to be educated with children living in similar housing conditions. Finally, this data shows that educational achievement is not declining in the United Kingdom. Noting that their data has been used by both the proponents and opponents of school choice to justify their proposals, Gorard et al. warn that it is easy to exaggerate the actual significance of national education

“School Choice Impacts: What Do We Know?” Educational Researcher, Volume 30, Number 7, October 2001 Pp. 18-23.

Published in ERN, December 2001/January 2002, Volume15, Number 1.

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