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James O'Shaughnessy: The centre-right case against more selection

James, Head of Research at Policy Exchange, offers a conservative perspective on the problems with introducing more academic selection.

The grammar school row has at least got people talking about education. There is now broad agreement on the centre-right on many issues: that there should be genuine parental choice where all money – revenue and capital – follows the pupil; that we must create a network of independent state-funded schools with the freedom to employ their own staff, design their own curriculum and enforce their own standards of discipline; and, that we desperately need to smash down the barriers so that new school providers can easily provide a good education.

The two Davids, Willetts and Cameron, have forcefully made their case against creating more grammar schools, and there is a group of genuine objectors who offer a powerful counter-argument to this pledge. Both sides agree that the test of a good policy is that it should help the poorest the most; both are motivated by a genuine commitment to social mobility. But the pro-grammar lobby believes that more, not less, academic selection is the way forward, and think the Willetts/Cameron policy is both ineffective and profoundly un-conservative. It is to this group of people that I want to make a centre-right case against more selection.

The basic problem with our education system is that there are simply not enough good school places to go round, so good schools have to ration their places among those who want them. That word 'ration' should set alarm bells ringing for conservatives, but that's what selection in this country is, whether it is academic, geographical, religious or otherwise. Research (by Caroline Hoxby, for example) suggests that market-based education reforms only drive up standards across all groups if schools are restricted in their ability to choose their intake. If schools can select there is a strong tendency towards social segregation and unfairly distributed benefits.

So increasing powers of selection simply gives in-demand schools the opportunity to screen out the hardest to help pupils, leaving them to congregate in our infamous ‘sink’ schools. More selection does nothing to increase the overall number of good school places; it just distributes differently, and in a way in which the poorest lose out most. We would not accept it if our best hospitals refused to treat someone who, because of their poverty, was in poor health. We should not accept such discrimination in our schools either.

In economic terms selection puts the interests of producers above those of consumers. Anyone who believes in the power of markets will immediately see the problem. Instead of competing with one another to attract pupils, and thereby driving up standards, schools get to choose who they admit. Good schools have no incentive to improve and the bad schools get filled anyway, so they have no incentive to get better either. Anyone who believes in competition, individual sovereignty and equal opportunity – three profoundly conservative ideas – should be appalled by this situation, which is why arguments about selection lead only to a dead end.

Another tenet of conservatism is a commitment to what works rather than to dogma, yet there are no instances of school reform where introducing more selection has increased both excellence and its equitable distribution. The Netherlands has been cited as showing that school choice and selection are compatible, but the Dutch have a ninety year old constitutional commitment to provide state support to any parents who want to educate their children in a non-state school. This basic right to supply education, and the fact their school system has had time to mature into a properly functioning market, makes the Netherlands exceptional. As a result there are more than enough good school places and schools compete for pupils. Where selection does take place it is more akin to sorting, with children matched to appropriate schools. But to pretend this would be the case if more selection were allowed in the UK is completely wrong. Perhaps it might in the future, but only once a genuine market in good school places has developed. Unfortunately we are probably decades away from achieving that lofty goal.

The experiences of places like Sweden, New Zealand the US serve as far better comparisons. In these countries, where school choice schemes are still relatively new and there are lower degrees of supply-side flexibility, the existence of school selection has been shown to increase social segregation. These countries still suffer, like we do, from a shortfall of good school places. Greater selection becomes, in effect, more rationing.

Finally, I believe that those who want more grammar schools are conflating teaching quality with academic selection. Grammar schools are special not because they choose their pupils on the basis of academic ability but because they use tried and tested educational techniques, foster a spirit of excellence, and test all pupils to their limits. These and other facets of a good education were all but destroyed by the so-called "progressive" education revolution of the '60s and '70s. Genuine reform which allows new providers to enter the market and enables good schools to expand, combined with a new commitment to the pursuit of excellence as practised in the remaining grammars, is the best route to improvement. Increasing the supply of good school places in this way – rather than focusing on different ways to ration them – can raise educational standards for the many and not the few.


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