School choice for Scotland

Nevada has become the first state in the US to enact a law making school choice universal. This is a groundbreaking example for other countries mildly experimenting with school choice. Adopting something similar in the UK context is an especially interesting idea.

It works through an education savings account (ESA) in which the state deposits what it would averagely expend educating a child under the state system. Parents can use this fund for everything from school fees to private tuition – the choice offered in educational services being as wide-ranging and high-quality as individuals demand. And the catchment allocation of pupils to schools they don’t want to attend is a thing of the past.

Notably, families can roll over unused funds from year to year, a feature that makes this approach particularly attractive. It is the only choice model to date that puts downward pressure on prices. Parents consider not only the quality of education service they receive, but the cost, since they can save unused funds for future education expenses.

Scotland, with roughly double the population size of Nevada and a completely devolved education system, could technically do something similar. Not least because it’s an idea that people of all political ideologies seem to be supportive of (see my previous post), but there is no freedom of movement in the education system – something that is neither fair on those trapped in the postcode of poorer schools nor an efficient way of driving up standards.

Remarkably many UK private schools at the cheaper end of the spectrum are running at a lower cost than state schools. Take a look at a 2011 paper (pdf) by James Croft that breaks down the cost of state and private sector schools, controlling for expenditures particular to each. Given that profit-making schools can achieve better outcomes for less money, the state handing back the cost of a child’s ‘free’ education would enable people to attend a private school who previously couldn’t afford it.

41% operate on fee levels less than, or on a par with, the national average per pupil funding in the state-maintained sector. On average, fees are approximately £7,500 annually. Fees at the more accessible end of the spectrum attract a high proportion of first-time buyers of independent education.

The best education policy currently on offer in Scotland is detailed in the Scottish Conservatives’ 2016 Holyrood election manifesto (pdf) which promises school vouchers. But realistically, 60% of Scottish people voting next year are planning to support the SNP. There’s just no avoiding for now that Scottish politicians will churn out yet more legislation from our unicameral conveyor belt to undermine independent schools’ autonomy and unintentionally halt our education system’s advancement.

Take the Education (Scotland) Bill 2015 (pdf), which I have highlighted in a recent post for an unreasoned section that attempts to outlaw inequality in state schools – if it’s successfully implemented teachers not registered with Scotland’s General Teaching Council will be barred from teaching.This will massively limit what expert teaching Scottish pupils are exposed to. Meanwhile looms the threat that charitable status, and therefore up to 80% tax relief, will be removed from private schools, affecting hundreds of bursaries for disadvantaged children.

Interference with the better-performing independent schools and misdirected moves in state sector has created an environment in which it is impossible for an education market with school choice and low-cost private schools to emerge. Until we take steps in the right direction, the transience of politics will prove to be either a blessing or a curse.

So student loans seem to be working as a policy then

Some will no doubt decry this finding as evidence of the increasing commercialisation of society, the death of all that is good and holy. We would respond that this is actually the point of having student loans:

The first students to graduate since the imposition of £9,000 annual tuition fees are more focused on securing a well-paid job than their predecessors to pay off their higher levels of debt, according to a major survey of post-university employment.

The survey of 18,000 final year students at 30 universities reported a record proportion had started researching career paths as early as their first year of studies, and more of them undertook work experience to improve their chances of getting a good job after graduation.

The survey found the average level of debt by this summer’s graduates had ballooned to £30,000, compared with averages of £20,000 in 2014 and 2013.

The truth being that university is both enjoyable and highly enriching. To the point that, assuming one has taken the right sort of course, lifetime earnings are some hundreds of thousands of pounds higher for those who have a degree than for those who do not. Thus the major beneficiaries of a university education are those who get one: so why shouldn’t they be the ones paying for one?

But while that is true that’s not really the point of student loans rather than grants. The real point being that a university education is an expensive thing to provide. We’d rather thus encourage people to go and make use of that expensive asset that they’ve just acquired. Thus recent graduates looking for well paid jobs isn’t a fault of the system, it’s the major darn point.

That is, that recent graduates are looking for those better paid jobs as a result of having student debt shows that the system of financing degrees by debt is working.

The long history of school choice division

Most people, acting rationally, would prefer to choose the school their child goes to as opposed to having their child forcibly assigned to a school. So opposition to school choice seems no less strange wherever it comes from. Nonetheless understanding the reasons is enlightening. The divide of opinion on school vouchers in the States, for example, is portrayed as being between the left and the right. Or Republicans against Democrats and whites against minorities. But it is not as simple as this and not really the case.

A new paper (pdf) by Shuls and Wolf studies the empirical reality regarding the political and racial divide over vouchers and explains its history in the U.S to offer conclusions about the logic of political support of and opposition to school choice. It also explains, for the unacquainted, what we mean when we talk about private school choice.

These two charts demonstrate the rise and prevalence of Private School Choice Programs in the States today:





The interesting finding is that while support for vouchers does tend to be higher among Republicans, support at the policymaking level is found both among ideological Democrats of the social-justice-promoting kind like Senator Corey Booker, and Republicans like Senator Rand Paul who support free markets. Those opposed tend to be moderate and mostly rural Republicans and establishment Democrats.

Teachers’ unions contribute more money than any other interested party to election candidates in the U.S. Of their campaign contributions, 88-99% of national-level, and 80-90% of state-level, contributions have gone to Democrats. The priority policy issue for the main teaching unions – the National Education Association and (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) – is to stop the spread of private school choice. Therefore one reason why so many Democrats may actually be opposed to school choice is that they would be doing so in spite of their single largest funder.

On the contrary, one has to ask why elected politicians in the U.S would support private school choice given teaching unions’ opposition. Research conducted for the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice found 40% of parents polled would prefer to send their child to a private school and 10% of respondents would rather a public charter school. Private school vouchers were supported by 63% of respondents.

As DiPerna reports, “The demographic groups having the highest positive margins and most likely to favor school vouchers are school parents (+42 points), Southerners (+36 points), Republicans (+42 points), young voters (+44 points), low-income earners (+47 points), African Americans (+50 points), and Latinos (+47 points)” (DiPerna 2014, p. 14).

Reports from parents are far-off actual enrolment figures. The National Center for Educational Statistics tells us 9% of K-12 students attend private schools and 4% attend charter schools. So the Friedman Foundation poll suggests that opposition from the unions is pitted against popular opinion, especially in areas with more young people and ethnic minorities.

Inspired by the Prisoner’s Dilemma, the School Choice Dilemma explains some of this by  illustrating the compelling reasons for the opposition and support found in various political factions. Imagine two groups of students, one “advantaged” and one “disadvantaged”; one has enjoyed educational trips, access to materials and so on and the other hasn’t. When both are given the opportunity to either accept their assigned school or to choose it themselves, they will be impacted in different ways.

If they both accept the assigned school, then there will be a mix of advantaged and disadvantaged students, which benefits (B) the disadvantaged from integrating with a brighter peer group; but may actually harm (H) the advantaged. Compared to this, the diagram shows that both will have an incentive to ‘defect’ and move to a situation where only they get S—the benefit of school choice. Advantaged students can already do this by buying houses near good schools or going to private schools—but the disadvantaged achieve this through targeted vouchers.


The conclusion is that we will probably continue to see rational politicians from both sides oppose school choice as the establishment in both parties have strong political incentives for protecting the status quo. Meanwhile social-justice politicians see school choice as a means to improving educational outcomes for disadvantaged students, and free-market individuals see school choice as a fundamental way to make education more efficient.

Charter schools and the aspiring classes

There is significant research concluding that the ever-spreading charter schools in the U.S. are markedly improving pupils’ performance. Charter schools are free to attend, open to all children and publicly funded but independently run – the most similar comparison close to home being the Free Schools Programme in England. Since the first charter school law passed in Minnesota in 1991, almost seven thousand have opened with two and a half million children now being educated in a charter school.

Previous studies have looked at lottery estimates. These compare how charter applicants perform when admitted to a charter school with how they would have performed had they attended a state school as the randomness ensures there are no systematic differences between those selected and not selected. But these studies do not account for pupils who never applied to a charter school and ended up attending one. Or for pupils attending charter schools for which demand is weak.

A new discussion paper (pdf) by Atila Abdulkadiroglu, Joshua D. Angrist, Peter D. Hull, and Parag A. Pathak does just this by testing the treatment effects of charter school attendance on middle-schoolers that are part of the new takeovers in New Orleans and Boston.

Takeovers see traditional state schools closed and then re-opened as charter schools. Students enrolled in schools designated for closure are eligible to be ‘grandfathered’ into the newly-opened charter schools. This means that they are guaranteed a place.

What this new paper finds is that highly disadvantaged students have experienced substantial gains in their achievement after enrolling in takeovers passively. It was previously believed that urban charter lottery applicants enjoy an unrepresentatively large benefit from charter attendance because they are either highly motivated or uniquely primed to benefit from the education these schools offer. Now we have both estimates from grandfathering and lottery-based research that weigh against this view.

These successes have also prompted similar approaches to be explored in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee despite the controversy caused by the proliferation of charter takeovers in New Orleans, Boston and elsewhere.

Charters Without Lotteries: Testing Takeovers in New Orleans and Boston is one report of what is becoming a substantial compilation of literature on why charter schools are working. They are some of the top-performing schools in the country with a higher percentage of charter school students accepted into a college or university. They are raising the bar of what is possible and should be expected in public education.

Teachers in charter schools are given the freedom to innovate and have more powers to explore the best practices. The schools can adopt themes and focus on specific fields like STEM subjects, performing arts or meeting the special needs, for example, of autistic children.

How charter schools are quickly extending choice to the poorest is exciting. And crucial. It is not widely recognised that choice already exists – but for the wealthiest. The most privileged can not only afford private schools but through the state school catchment system the housing market is the market for schools. An accepted way of boosting real estate is by improving schools as families want to buy houses in areas with good schools. School choice gives the poor a way to access the already existing market.

The disadvantaged are on the rise and benefiting more than ever from state education as a result of what is the best prominent educational movement in the U.S right now.

Scotland must Finnish that myth

Just after the independence referendum was a momentous time to be in that exhausted Chamber of the Scottish Parliament. It marked the first debate not focussed on the constitution for as long as we could remember. And education was finally the centre of attention.

The attainment gap in Scottish state schools is something that the main parties in Scotland care about a lot. Oft-quoted statistics portraying state schools practically next to each other as performing at opposite ends of the attainment spectrum provide the impetus. 

It is true – Scotland’s ‘educational apartheid’ has been described as a ‘national disgrace’. Now Scotland’s First Minister is behind a dangerously vague and impossible Education Bill (pdf) that proposes to outlaw inequality if it receives cross-party support in Holyrood this year.

So closing this ‘gulf’ in performance, to most Scottish politicians, is a worthy goal. And perhaps this remains part of the appeal of the Finnish education system. Its schools are among the most uniform in the world. 

Certainly in 2001, when Finland came to be regarded as an education superpower, its results in the OECD’s Programme for International Assessment (PISA) made it the most desirable model in the world. 

Of the 41 nations that took part that year, Finland was impressively topping the tables in science, mathematics and reading and competing with the notoriously well-performing Asian nations. Ever since then we have been making the most myopic movements in education reform in order to emulate their achievements.

Indeed, Scotland’s controversial Curriculum for Excellence was largely inspired by the Finnish model. Created in 2004 and implemented in 2010, CfE has been one of these unimaginative, inside-the-box changes in the Scottish schooling sphere. 

To counteract the case made that more school choice and competition between schools is the answer to spreading quality and innovation, the Finnish argument is still made. The correlation between the reforms in Finland and the time of its exemplary PISA results has led to the common conclusion that the reforms caused the success.

In this very debate following the referendum, Kezia Dugdale, the deputy leader of the Scottish Labour Party, once more spoke of her visit to Finland and lessons we should still be learning from the country’s example.

Remarkably, until now, nobody has actually scratched beneath the surface of this spiel. The Centre for Policy Studies has just published Real Finnish Lessons (pdf) by Gabriel Heller Sahlgren of CMRE. It is the first paper of its kind to take a reasoned and thorough look at the Finnish schooling sensation. 

The first point of note is that performance began declining since those reforms were enacted. 

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What the new analysis tell us is that Finland’s rise accelerated primarily during the old system when the traditionalist, rote-learning pedagogy was at its core. 

While results increased by approximately the equivalent of 23 TIMSS points between 1965 and 1980, they rose a further 32 points in the 1980s. They also increased a further 34 points in the 1990s, but started to level off in the latter part of the decade, and ultimately started to decline in the mid-2000s.

Considering the age of the pupils when they were tested, the strongest gains took place when pupils mostly attended school before the old system was entirely abolished.

Other data, too, supports the general trajectory of rise and decline in international surveys. 

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Here we see that performance improved while male youngsters attended primary—and lower—secondary school before the old system was entirely abolished and began falling when they became exposed to the new one. 

Real Finnish Lessons convincingly shows how Finland’s outcomes are better explained by a detailed examination of its political, social and cultural underpinnings by looking beyond the fashionable explanations in the international media. It concludes that those popular policy-related reasons for its rise to prominence do not stand up to scrutiny and if anything coincide with its slippage.

The current Scottish Government continues to prioritise eliminating inequality while advocating the Finnish school-style characteristics. But it is clear, now, as we still send our education ministers to Finland each year, that we have been following a flawed interpretation of their system. 

In a competitive system schools adopt the methods that work—not fashionable educationalist fads—and the misinterpretation of Finnish data would be much less likely to happen. Choice would see the schools that work spread whatever the orthodoxy of the day says. Unlike in a government-controlled system where well-meaning Progressive ministers can effectively overturn everything without parental consent.

So with increasing evidence in our favour, it is time to consider that steps towards choice, competition and innovation are key.