Giving parents real power: purchasing power

by Stephen Tall on October 26, 2005

Being a school governor is an educative experience: I offer two illustrations. A couple of years ago, the state primary school where I am a governor was ‘Ofsted-ed’. I have long felt there is great value in being subject to outside scrutiny. If nothing else, it forces you to look at yourself as others see you.

In fact, I found the inspection to be a surprisingly negative experience. The four-day whirlwind reconnoitre did highlight some important issues; but this ‘speed-rating’ left a nasty taste in the mouths of those on the receiving end. No reputable organisation would handle its appraisals in such an interrogative fashion.

Then last week I attended the school’s annual parents’ meeting, when the highlight of the evening was a talk on ‘Reading and the Literacy Hour’. For one hour, a full hall listened intently as the art of teaching children to read (phonics ‘n’ all) was de-mystified, and the parents asking interested, interesting questions designed to enable them to improve their child’s home learning.

Which indicates to me the obvious: that parents are the single most important influence on a child’s educational attainment. More important than Ofsted, more important than the DfES, and more important than LEAs (to list but three abbreviated regulators).

Labour appears to have cottoned onto this statement-of-the-bleedin’, with Ruth Kelly announcing proposals she argues will usher in true “parent power”. Sounds great in theory; the actuality is less impressive.

Let’s canter through five of the key problems in schools today:

  • The admissions post-code lottery: parents who want to guarantee their children can get into a good school have to pay: either in school fees, or in higher mortgages. It’s been calculated a 10% improvement in Key Stage 2 results in primary schools is associated with a 7% increase in house prices.
  • A bloated national curriculum: prescriptive government dictation of what should be taught in our schools undermines teachers’ ability to tailor their classes to their children, stifling creativity and professionalism. We need a minimum curriculum agreed by schools, not a national one set by government.
  • Under-achievement: around a quarter of children leave primary school unable to read or write. In the OECD’s 2004 comparison of 15 year-olds, Britain was ranked 11th out of 32 countries in science, and 18th in maths. Just 27% of black children achieve 5 A-Cs at GCSE, compared to 47% of whites – a discrepancy which is a function of poverty, rather than race.
  • Disruptive children: not simply the clear-cut, out-of-control head-cases, but the persistent low-level disrupters for whom there are few effective sanctions.
  • Devalued exams: in 1989, the mark needed to achieve a grade C in the higher Oxford and Cambridge GCSE Mathematics paper was 48%; in 2000 it was 18%. In difficult A-level subjects, such as Maths, up to 40% of candidates are awarded an A grade, and many universities are now setting their own admissions tests to filter the brightest.

Big issues, all of them. So what’s Ruth Kelly’s answer? Well, her insipid education White Paper – Labour’s twelfth since 1997 – proposes that new schools can be set up and managed by parents, private schools, universities, businesses, or faith or community groups; that a “schools commissioner” will help parents set up their own schools and to match potential backers with schools; and that existing schools will be allowed to become independent of LEAs. And, er, that’s about it.

Not much wrong with any of this, but I can’t see it transforming primary or secondary education. Why not? Because the Government refuses to – or dares not – see the logic of its own approach.

If parental involvement is the key to driving improvements in our schools, three ingredients are essential: responsibility, accountability – and purchasing power.

Let’s start from first principles. Teachers are responsible for educating children to the best of their professional ability; children are responsible for learning to the best of their ability; and parents are responsible for providing a supportive home background to the best of their ability. The aim must be to create a virtuous circle, connected by parents, in which motivated children hungry to learn are schooled by motivated teachers eager to educate.

But, of course, this utopia will not happen unless there is very clear accountability, with schools, children and parents all equally well aware of their own responsibilities. The accountability of children to their school and children to their parents is pretty clearly understood. What is currently opaque is the accountability of schools and parents to each other.

In theory, this can occur at different levels: informally (through a parents evening, or meeting with the head-teacher); or formally (via the governing body or LEA). In reality, parents have very little say over how their child is educated. This is for two reasons: first, because teachers are themselves so constrained by government in what they can teach, and how; and, secondly, because they have no option but to accept the type of education their local school offers, or else pay to opt out of the state system.

Responsibility and accountability are both pretty meaningless unless they are accompanied by the ability of parents to choose an alternative. To imagine – as the Government’s White Paper does – that new schools will magically appear in order to provide that alternative is fantasy. The only way in which parents will have real choice is if they are able to shop around for the school they believe will best suit their child’s education. The only way in which the market will supply that demand is if parents are in control of purchasing their child’s education. This means – yes, you’ve guessed it! – school vouchers.

Let me be clear. School vouchers are not an end in themselves. They do not offer a quick fix. They would solve many existing problems, but create some new ones. However, let me be equally clear about this: in considering what is best for our children’s education, the key decision-makers should be parents. Schools, and by extension the state, operate in loco parentis only.

Vouchers offer the best, and most flexible, method by which parents can be empowered. They would end, at a stroke, the postcode lottery of schools admissions. Schools which are free to set their own curriculums will attract more motivated staff and children. Their pupils will, in turn, disrupt less, learn more, and achieve better exam results. And if the value of the voucher is greater for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, or with special needs, schools will have an incentive actively to seek out those whom the education system is currently failing.

For too long, the educational requirements of children, and the role of their parents in choosing their education, have been elbowed aside by politicians desperate to take the credit for rising educational standards. The state should step back. It is time now for real parental power. And that means purchasing power.

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Do vouchers have a realistic chance of becoming LD policy? My impression from the comments thread on a recent post at Jonathan Calder’s is that the average LibDem is firmly wedded to the idea of a state monopoly.

by Bishop Hill on October 26, 2005 at 9:23 pm. Reply #

Realistically, I guess not. Markets are still too often seen as an enemy of social justice, rather than the most efficient mechanism for achieving social justice. The same arguments apply to variable university tuition fees, where LD policy is even more divorced from reality.

In fairness to those with whom I disagree (see, that’s how liberal I am), I think all Lib Dems would argue for less state regulation – eg, we’ve long argued for a minimum curriculum to replace the national curriculum. The party would also decentralise far more from Whitehall to LEAs – which would be a baby-step in the right direction.

But I agree with Jonathan – recent LD policy pronouncements on education have been depressingly old school.

by Stephen Tall on October 26, 2005 at 10:42 pm. Reply #

You say (A) “… parents have very little say over how their child is educated” and (B) “The only way in which parents will have real choice is if they are able to shop around for the school they believe will best suit their child’s education”. Personally, I can’t shake the feeling that (B) is a sledgehammer to crack the (A) nut. Even if market mechanisms are required, I suspect a market in teachers rather than whole schools would be more efficient, if a way could be found to make it work.

by Paul on October 27, 2005 at 4:14 am. Reply #

Paul – there already is a market in teachers: the job market. As I understand it (but am prepared to be corrected) schools have leeway in what they can offer in salaries.

There is a difficulty, though. Understandably, most teachers would prefer to work in a grammar school in a middle class area rather than a sink comprehensice with violence and drugs problems. Hence if you want high-quality teachers to come and sort out a school you have to pay them a fairly hefty wack of “danger money” (for want of a better term). In the market place where money follows pupils, such schools would not have the financial clout to attract the good teachers to turn themselves around. This is fine if you want to close the school but not if you want to improve it.

by Apollo Project on October 27, 2005 at 2:40 pm. Reply #

Paul – I don’t think we can reduce this simply to teachers… Teachers may be teaching to the best of their ability, but parents may still prefer another school’s curriculum; or its ethos; or its extra-curricular activities; etc. That kind of choice is important – it’s often how independent schools differentiate themselves – but it’s not going to happen *simply* by paying teachers market rates.

AP – like you, I stand to be corrected here; but though schools employ teachers I think they have to operate within nationally agreed pay and conditions.

More importantly, money following the pupil is *precisely* how you attract teachers to poorer schools. If vouchers are worth more for kids from (eg) inner city areas, schools have an incentive to attract them, and can then afford to pay their teachers more.

by Stephen Tall on October 27, 2005 at 7:09 pm. Reply #

Stephen is right to highlight that the White paper avoids many of the biger issues in education. Dealing with some of those will do far more to imporve educatio overall thatn further tinkering with the management of schools.

Personally I think the vouchers aproach has far more coherence that the dog’s breakfast the Government is putting forward. IF you believe that ‘parent power’ is the way forward then why not give them control of the resources in this way.

But there are problems with it. Most of the practical problems associated with uncoordinated school expanasion and contraction would remain. However popular a school it will have its physical limits.

At present something akin to a voucher system already exists. Every pupil who attends a school carries a funding stream with them. In most LEAs, certainly here in Oxfordhire, the schools that take more pupils from deprived areas, or those with special needs, also get additional resources. Popular schools already get more resource through this system as do those delaying with weaker catchment areas.

AP – I think you are wrong about teachers motivation. I am sure it is the case that some teachers prefer to teach in middle class grammar schools but many people become excellent teachers because they want to help those in more deprived areas or who have had fewer life chances. What is so sad is that they are all so hamstrung by national dictat that they can’t always work as innovatively as they would like.

by Liberal Neil on October 28, 2005 at 2:09 pm. Reply #

Oh, and BH – personally my motivation is to secure the best possible education for each and every child. I am not really concerned about whether the provide is the state, voluntary or private. I do, however, beleive that there needs to be some degree of local coordination of education provision if we are to ensure that the interests of those who maybe don’t have parents who care get an equal opportunity to access the system, and that this should be democratically accountable locally.

by Liberal Neil on October 28, 2005 at 2:13 pm. Reply #

Thanks Liberal Neil – there writes a man who’s using his half-term break well!

by Stephen Tall on October 28, 2005 at 3:23 pm. Reply #


I think you are wrong on the need for local coordination and democratic accountability. Democratic accountability means giving elected politicians control. This extends control beyond the consumers of the service to those whose only interest is political rather than educational. That is a recipe for more of the same if you ask me. Democracy is a poor substitute for a market mechanism in most instances. Are you really saying that the whole electorate getting a say once every five years is a better system than consumers choosing as often as they see fit?

You are right that we should worry about those whose parents don’t care. The point of a voucher system is that it will raise standards across the board. These children, who currently attend sink schools, will be at much better schools under a voucher system. That has to be good.

by Bishop Hill on October 28, 2005 at 6:28 pm. Reply #

Apollo Project said: “…there already is a market in teachers: the job market.”

Well, that wasn’t quite what I had in mind, but I’m willing to admit that what I have in mind may be pure moonshine.

So, at the risk of revealing myself to be completely deluded, let me try again.

The problem, you will recall, is that “parents have very little say over how their child is educated.” (We might also add that, most of the time, “students have very little say over how they are educated”.)

The proposed solution is simply to have lots of different schools to choose from.

Now, over at Jonathan Calder’s excellent blog, the inestimable Bishop Hill seems to suggest that parents are *not* expected to be moving their child hither and yon. Here’s what he commented: “Parents pick the school at the outset of their child’s school career and tend not to move them thereafter because of the disruptive effect on their children.”

Quite so. And I’m guessing economists have a term for these sorts of transaction costs, and the dampening effect they must surely have on a market. In any event, it seems that the power that parents will have “over how their child is educated” isn’t of the “If you don’t give me satisfaction I’ll take my voucher, er, child, elsewhere” variety. If Bishop Hill is right, most of the time this will amount to an empty threat.

This strikes me as a pretty sluggish market. Particularly when you factor in the well-rehearsed physical and cultural reasons that limit the growth of existing schools, and the potential costs of entry of new schools. (An aside here: Some commentators seem to suggest that the costs of entry are small. I’m open to persuasion, but the kind of infrastructure that comes to my mind when I think of the word “school” – classrooms, gym, fields, labs — isn’t available at the end of every street.)

All of which prompts my feeling that “a market in schools” isn’t the magic bullet that some seem to think, and gets me to wondering whether market forces couldn’t be focused on somewhat smaller units of competition.

So yes, there’s a job market for teachers. But they’re employed by the schools. The sort of market I’m thinking of is where the teachers are employed by the parents. Or at least where the teacher’s remuneration/job depends in a fairly straightforward way on the average satisfaction of parents in their children’s progress in any given class. On this model, a school is a container for teachers and their classes, some of whom will be in competition with each other.

An example: Suppose you have a history teacher who focuses on the dates of battles, the biographies of great men and women, and the succession of monarchs. Suppose you have another who prefers to explore history through public records and the contemporary accounts of ordinary people. Why not have both in the same school and let the parents and/or students choose which class to — literally? — subscribe to. (If you don’t buy that example, pick your own favourite pedagological difference: synthetic phonics versus “look and say”; dead white males versus contemporary literature; and so on.)

To accommodate all this diversity, schools would perhaps have to be open many more hours, but isn’t that the current trend anyway?

Other commentators in this thread have talked about varying the curriculum, or extra-curricular activities, or ethos. I don’t know about that last one but the others are also amenable to the sort of pick ‘n’ mix system I am so vaguely gesturing at. What’s more, it’s completely compatible with having a wider range of school providers!

Impossible? Undesirable? Nonsensical? Yeah, probably. I am, after all, unfettered by any practical knowledge of how schools actually work. But it sure makes the dull notion of merely choosing a school once per child look, well, rather conservative.

by Paul on October 28, 2005 at 6:38 pm. Reply #

Stephen – ‘half term’ yes, ‘break’ – you’ve got to be kidding. By this stage in the week I am feeling VERY sympathetic to the teachers 😉

BH – I don’t believe that councils are the only way to coordinate education at a local level. There is no reason you couldn’t have local school boards of some kind.

by Liberal Neil on October 28, 2005 at 10:25 pm. Reply #

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