Flex competitive muscle and watch equity thrive

May 27, 2005

Higher education has much to teach schools about the benefits of choice, says Ann Rossiter.

Making choice in education real is one of the Prime Minister's "legacy" projects for his third term. For someone who wants to leave his imprimatur on the country, reforming education has two advantages. First, parliamentary approval is not needed for most of the changes, and second, once changes are made they will be difficult to undo. It will be a brave politician who takes choice away from parents once granted.

In theory, choice exists already throughout education. In higher education, students can choose which university to attend once they have met grade requirements. Parents can choose nursery care from a range of public and private-sector providers and can express a preference for the primary and secondary school of their choice. However, there is no guarantee that the choice will be honoured.

Tony Blair is motivated by the desire to ensure that choice is meaningful.

It is this desire that is behind the appointment of the Social Market Foundation's director, Philip Collins, to advise the Prime Minister on the reform of public services.

But why care about choice at all? In Choice: The Evidence , the SMF argues that there are three features of good choice schemes that will drive up quality. Providers should be able to expand in response to demand; funding should follow the service user - that is, there should be payment per head, representing the real cost of educating a pupil; and the service user should be free to choose a provider.

None of these applies to our primary and secondary education systems, but they are all present in higher education. This suggests that the structure of higher education may have a lot to say about how choice reforms should be constructed.

In secondary education, local education authorities attempt to match the number of places to pupils exactly. There is little scope for popular schools to expand. In higher education, the provision of courses is driven by demand, and departments can be shut if there is insufficient interest.

Mr Blair wants this model throughout education. He would like to see competition between the traditional state sector and a new tranche of independent (but not private) schools.

If competition is to drive up standards, school funding will need to meet the cost of educating pupils more exactly, something higher education is better at. Schools get some extra funding based on the number of pupils eligible for free school meals or with special educational needs. But this does not reflect the real additional cost - financial and in terms of school achievement - of taking pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Higher education also provides a model in the third area - the right of students to choose institutions. Once students have the grades, it is up to them to pick a university. This is critical, since institutions compete to attract students. The reverse is true in schools, where matching places to pupils means that only the lucky or the canny get their first choice, and poorly performing schools lack the incentive to improve.

The major lesson that higher education has to teach those introducing choice into the state school system is that competition works. But higher education also has something to say about encouraging equity. We identified four criteria necessary to ensure that competition does not damage equity: no selection by the provider; enough capacity to stop providers selecting covertly; systemic response to failing providers; and freedom to choose being made meaningful for all users through information and support.

Equity has different implications outside compulsory schooling. Higher education does not need to worry about selection or capacity constraints - rather, selection is vital to limit intake to the qualified and motivated.

But higher education provides useful lessons in making freedom to choose a reality. Information about the performance of universities is available through the funding councils and the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service. In comparison, school league tables communicate performance poorly.

Making equity real requires more than information - it also means providing support. At present, the extra money that pupils might need to attend a school outside their neighbourhood is not provided. In higher education, loans and bursaries mean that affordability should not be a barrier. No part of our education system has really dealt with this problem - poverty of aspiration still rules. But there are lessons for the Government if it wants to see pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds heading for high-performing schools.

Ann Rossiter is acting director, Social Market Foundation.

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