Assuming the Conservatives win the upcoming General Election, it looks like Britain will finally get a fully fledged school choice scheme in 2010 – something the Adam Smith Institute has been pushing for ever since it was founded. Under Michael Gove’s planned reforms, parents would be free to choose which school their children attended, with government funding following that choice. Crucially, Gove also aims to liberate the supply-side of education, by allowing charities, companies, groups of parents and so on to set up new schools, which would compete with existing state sector ones.
The policy is not perfect: with the Conservatives saying they would not allow schools to make a profit, how many private companies would get involved in providing education? In Sweden, where a similar school choice scheme was set up in 1994, for-profit companies have been the dominant providers of new school places, and have often been the most innovative and successful market entrants. But regardless, school choice is a great idea that could have a transformative effect on British education. As well as empowering parents (itself a valuable objective), the competition it unleashes will drive up standards as good schools prosper and bad ones go out of business, and will also encourage schools to innovate, specialise, and tailor their services to their pupils.
But it is vital that the Conservatives understand that an effective school system needs more than just parental choice and voucher-style funding arrangements. Schools must also be freed from a whole raft of red-tape if the benefits of competition are really to be felt. Firstly, starting a new school needs to be made much easier – planning laws need to be radically altered, and bureaucratic processes dramatically streamlined. Secondly, schools need to be given far more freedom about how and what they teach – that means getting rid of the national curriculum and compulsory standardized tests, and allowing schools to pick whichever exam system they think best (be it GCSE/A-Level, iGCSE/Pre-U, the IB, or whatever). Thirdly, the teaching profession needs a big shake-up. Teachers should be employed by schools, not the government, and should have individually negotiated contracts, not nationally collective-bargained ones. Just as importantly, the route into the teaching profession should be liberalised, with schools themselves taking greater responsibility for teacher training and certification. Finally, these freedoms should not just be for new schools, but should be extended to schools currently in the state sector, all of which should become independent – perhaps as trusts, perhaps as parent-teacher co-operatives, or perhaps under some other management structure.
Ultimately, what needs to be realized is that school choice involves the wholesale rejection of the comprehensive ideology – that one size, determined by Whitehall, fits all – and the adoption a completely new outlook: let a thousand flowers bloom.