Give Parents Open Access to Schools

Monday 1 October

Both major parties must be far more radical in their approach to education reform, says a new report from the Adam Smith Institute. Inspired by Sweden's experience, the report calls for the  UK to implement a universal open access scheme, which would allow parents to send their children to any school of their choice – whether state, private or religious – and make these schools eligible for government funding on a per–pupil basis. Two conditions must be met: the  schools must not charge additional fees, and must accept pupils on a first-come-first-served basis. 

"Our education system is not fit for purpose", the report begins, "too many of our children leave school without the skills they need for life, work, or further education."  One in every five adults in the UK is functionally illiterate. English students perform poorly in maths compared  with those in other developed countries. This is a tragic waste.

The disadvantaged suffer most. While the wealthy can afford to send their children to a private  school, or move to the catchment area of a good state school, the disadvantaged have no choice but to have their children assigned to a school by their Local Education Authority, regardless of its quality. As a result, social mobility in the UK has been declining. If this trend is to be  reversed, the UK's education system desperately needs a "thorough-going reform". 

The UK need not look far for inspiration.  Fifteen years after Sweden implemented its own open  access system, it is clear the reform has been a great success. New, affordable educational possibilities opened up to children from disadvantaged families. Swedish state schools were faced with having to compete in a more vibrant environment, and their quality improved as a  result. Thanks to its spectacular success, the open access scheme is now valued by parents, and embraced by all major political parties.  

Based on the Swedish reforms, the paper recommends the following measures be adopted in Britain: 

1) Let parents choose the best school for their children. Open access means letting parents send their children to the school of their choice. So long as schools accept pupils  on a first-come-first-served basis and do not charge any additional fees, they should receive state funding on a per-pupil basis – regardless of whether they are state-run, independent, or religious. 

2) Make it easier to establish new schools. The Department for Children, Schools and Families should approve the establishment of any new school, provided it meets basic  civic and teaching requirements and would not charge fees.

3) Abolish the surplus places policy, which stops good schools from expanding, or new  ones being established, when there are spare places at another school in the area.

4) Simplify the national curriculum to allow innovation and personalized teaching.  Teachers must be freed from central control and bureaucracy, and allowed to do their job.

Nothing is more important for the future of the UK than improving our education system. The Swedish example shows us that it is possible to encourage the growth of new schools, improve the quality of existing ones, and create a dynamic and innovative school system in which  teachers are highly motivated and students receive the very best education. The UK's children deserve no less.  

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