The Report Card on Competition in Schools

Britain's education system was radically transformed by the Education Reform Act (1988). The objective of these reforms was to raise educational attainment through the establishment of a quasi-market based on greater parental choice of school and the transfer of control of resources from local education authorities to the schools themselves. Annual School Performance Tables were published in order to help parents make a more informed choice of school. This report asks whether these reforms were actually successful in bringing competitive forces into education, and what the effects have been in terms of efficiency and equity.

Analysis of data from 3000 publicly funded schools provide these answers:

  1. Parents have sought equality. Schools with a 'good' exam performance relative to their local competitors have taken a bigger share of the market.
  2. The exam performance of schools is positively related to school size. Small schools are at a disadvantage in terms of exam performance.
  3. Exam performance has risen as schools feel the effects of competition and try to outdo the achievement of other schools nearby.
  4. There is some evidence of a widening gap in the social composition of schools, through this is small.

However, factors other than competition may have produced the improvement in exam performance. Government efforts to expand higher education may increase the pressure to 'do well' in GCSEs.There is a growing realisation that in the information age, job prospects are linked to educational performance. And the publication of performance tables, schools may have focused on the headline A* to C grades rather than more diffuse targets.

Since the introduction of market forces has had a positive impact on the exam performance of schools, it seems appropriate to use the market mechanism as a means to deliver further improvements. Attention needs to be focused more directly, however, on improving the performance of pupils from lower-inome groups, since this is where the problem of poor performance mainly lies.

In terms of future policy, an obvious extension of the competition approach is to provide incentives to get the best teachers and the best school management teams into the schools with the worst performance.

An alternative policy is to create incentives for schools with 'good' exam results to take a greater proportion of their pupils from low-income families, allowing them greater resources to offset the disadvantages of their family background. Such a policy would help pupils from low-income families to benefit from peer-group effects on their performance, thereby raising the average level of educational attainment.


Read the full paper. 

Consigned to Oblivion - What future for Insignia?

Fugitives commonly change their name in the hope of escaping justice. In 2001 The Post Office changed its corporate name to Consignia and adopted a new logo, which appears to depict the view down the barrel of a gun. The wisdom of changing a brand name that has been established since the days of Rowland Hill is unclear, but according to Consignia:

Our new name, Consignia, will support our moves in the wider distribution market and onto the global stage. However, we will continue to serve our U customers through our trusted brands - Royal Mail, Parcelforce Worldwide and Post Office for our network of retail branches.

Two points can be made:

  • globally there are no other postal administrations called 'The Post Office'. Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the US Postal Service have all attached their national identities to the word 'post' or 'postal' in their titles so there could have been no confusion on the 'global stage'; and
  • by long-established precedent British postal stamps d not include a national designation because they were first in the field. By analogy the UK Post Office could robustly have argued that it was the first organisation in the field named The Post Office and should therefore be known worldwide as such. It is extraordinary that the Post Office's managers abandoned the huge asset of this brand name in favour of one that is meaningless and, to the general public both in the UK and worldwide, unknown.


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Consigned to Oblivion

Around the world - Sweden, New Zealand, Germany, Netherlands - postal services have been liberalised and the public is getting better services at lower cost. Yet the UK, the pioneer of privatisation in the 1980s, still lumbers along with a state-owned post office that is now losing large amounts of money. Ian Senior says it's time for the Post Office to embrace competition, develop new services, and start making money.


Read the full paper. 

Broadband Britain

The government's vision of 'Broadband Britain' will never be achieved without fundamental reform in telecoms regulation. Broadband Britain: Finding a Way Forward says that broadband could become a major driver of wealth creation within ten years, improving education and business performance. Britain lags behind, 21st out of the richest 30th countries in terms of broadband penetration. The institutes points to the need for a more aggressive regulatory regime that will deliver a level playing field for profitability in telecommunications. Opportunities created by this will give BT and its shareholders the option to review the break up of the service into two parts. One for services (Servco) and another for network infrastructure (Netco).


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Taking Liberties

This paper from Peter Lilley MP outlines his concern that four fundamental pillars of freedom – jury trial, Double Jeopardy, Presumption of Innocence, and Habeas Corpus – are threatened by an unprecedented alliance between populism and modernizing zeal. He says that the net result will be to make the British people more vulnerable than ever to arbitrary action by the State. In his view, though it is important to tackle crime, sacrificing the liberties that protect the innocent will not help bring the guilty to justice.

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Wired to Learn

The government wants to create the 'school of the future' with ICT-based learning in new-look buildings and at home. But existing government policy stands in the way of this vision. Teacher and ICT expert Tom McMullan identifies the blockages: too much focus on numbers rather than sustainability, low teacher confidence, dismal connectivity, and the lack of realisation that content, not hardware, is what it's all about.


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The report card on competition in schools

The year-by-year improvement in examination results owes more to the spirit of competition between schools than to Whitehall¹s increasingly centralized controls over them. Schools could produce still more improvements in the future if they were given even more freedom to manage themselves and compete for pupils. But there must be more focus on improving the performance of schools in poorer neighbourhoods, which have not kept pace with the general improvements.

Based on a study of 3000 state schools by two Lancaster University economists, the Report Card says the results of the competition between schools that has followed the introduction of league tables and other reforms in 1988 has been that:

- Parents have sought quality, moving their children to local schools that are higher up the league tables of exam performance;

- Exam performance has risen as schools feel the effects of this competition and try to outdo the achievement of other schools nearby;

- Larger schools perform better because they can be more flexible in how they use staff time; and

- The gap between rich and poor schools is widening, though not by much.

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Learning from Europe

This report is based on the experience of school choice policies in the Netherlands and Denmark, and shows how the policies of those two countries provide important lessons for efforts to improve the UK's school system. In the Netherlands and Denmark, school choice policies and per capita funding have been successfully implemented, the results being equal access for all pupils to independent schools, which today cater for 70% of pupils in the Netherlands and 12% (and increasing) in Denmark. These liberalised policies have been accompanied by higher performance by pupils in independent schools, higher parent satisfaction and lower per pupil cost.


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Education Cheque

Former Education Department special adviser Stuart Sexton says that parents should be empowered to seek out the most appropriate school for their children, and schools should be incentivized to meet their demand. But how, when many people cannot afford to become active ‘customers' in the education market?

Give parents an Education Cheque to cover the cost of their children's education. Let them choose the school they want. Let schools strive to satisfy parents, as customers. And let them use the parents' education cheques however they want in running and developing their schools. In other words, let the funding for schools come bottom-up from parents, not top-down through layers of Whitehall and local government.


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