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.