“Must Try Harder:” Free School Report

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School choice is a popular policy proposal that has its origins in classical liberal thinking–particularly that of Milton Friedman–and which has (unusually) burst its banks and become common in many countries (the UK is one) and standard in others (Sweden is one).

Often it is claimed that it means better academic performance, less bureaucracy, and more skilled teaching. Apart from that–in the UK at least–parents are freed from the tyranny of “catchment areas,”  which mandate that one must send one’s children to a school that is geographically “local”.

“Catchment areas” create all sorts of perverse incentives, ranging from parents buying property near schools known to have good academic standards to parents pretending (if they don’t have the money to play musical houses on their child’s transition from primary to secondary) that they live close to a good school. Indeed–in one of those moments where British educational paranoia intersected with the War on Terror and the national obsession with property prices–one of the improper uses to which the UK’s anti-terror legislation was put involved spying on parents suspected of gaming school catchment areas.

In Britain, school choice manifests as “Free Schools.” The schools are publicly funded, but local communities and organisers have considerable room to structure the school as they wish and, particularly, to hire who they wish as teachers. It’s very much a flagship Conservative policy, and was structured to avoid a problem that has emerged in Sweden: venture capital buying up schools and starving them of money in order to record exaggerated (and taxpayer funded) profits.

This means that when the wheels fall off a British free school, the process is different from Swedish failure. Sweden has had no creationists in its classrooms: schools must deliver the curriculum, and competition between them is based on how well they do so. In Britain, community management keeps the corporates out, but lets the creationists (and others) in.

In the last month, this structural danger blew up all over the school choice movement in the form of a Muslim free school in Derby. It began when a teacher was sacked for refusing to wear the hijab, escalated when the English schools inspectorate, Ofsted, scheduled an early inspection, and then reached its dénouement when Ofsted found the school in “chaos”: unqualified teachers, inadequate curriculum, absent children.

Even more incredibly, the school’s headteacher was this week revealed as the whistleblower, furious that he’d been stonewalled by the school’s trustees and governors.

Then, of course, came the fall-out: an old-school slanging match in the Commons, pleas from across the spectrum to allow the new policy to “bed in”, and the observation that what data we have indicate that the best free schools are indeed as good as or better than the best state schools… but that the failing free schools are worse. Thus far, student outcomes in both systems are similar, which mirrors findings in the far more detailed and comprehensive studies of US charter schools.

This not only suggests that Friedman was wrong–something that is neither here nor there, Friedman was so scrupulous an economist that he would expect scientific falsification to apply to his hypotheses, too–but that improving educational outcomes is far trickier than it seems. Once we have achieved universal, compulsory, decent quality public education, it is hard to top it. Really hard.

It may be that the developed world is butting up against biology. We now know that intelligence is largely inherited; there is no ethical way to increase the number of clever people in a given population apart from importing them via immigration (something Australia does shamelessly, to the exclusion of almost any other kind of migrant). I leave TOL’s readers to decide for themselves whether Australia’s immigration policies are “ethical.”

Like the admonitions on old-style report cards, it seems we “must try harder.”