This report, ‘Parent Power’, examines how the principles of greater choice and competition might be applied to the Scottish education system to raise overall standards and extend educational opportunity. This follows on from the findings of an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report which stated that ‘across countries, having a larger number of schools that compete for students is associated with better results, over and above the relationship with student background.’
The reports finds that although there are many very good state schools in Scotland, Scotland’s performance in international studies of educational performance is mixed and leaves plenty of room for improvement. A country such as Scotland that prides itself on its reputation for educational excellence should aspire to do much better.
What is more worrying is that the Scottish education system is increasingly failing to fulfil its traditional role as a facilitator of social mobility. The report highlights that, regardless of local authority area, schools with a higher percentage of pupils on free school meals generally achieved lower exam results and pupils were less likely to enter further or higher education, training or work when leaving school.
The interesting thing is that some schools perform better than would be expected given the high level of pupils receiving free school meals. This shows it is not that children from deprived backgrounds are less able than their wealthier counterparts. Instead, too often, children from disadvantaged backgrounds are falling through the gaps because the educational environment available to them is not helping them to fulfil their potential. Under the current system, their parents have little ability to change this.
Taking all this into account, our proposals to improve the Scottish education system have two related elements. The first is that, as in a number of other countries such as the Netherlands and Sweden, parents or guardians should be given greater power to choose where their children are educated. We think this is best achieved by giving parents an entitlement equal to the value of the average cost of educating a child in their local authority area. This would give parents a greater say in choosing the school they believe will help their child fulfil his or her potential. This could be the local state school, a state school on the other side of town or an independent school if its fees were the same as or less than the value of the entitlement.
The second part of our proposals is that there is a need for new and more diverse schools to be set up to provide the competition that the OECD’s study highlighted as being the key driver of improved standards. There is nothing to stop new independent schools being set up at present. However, giving parents the entitlement will provide the essential stimulus for the establishment of new, independent, state-funded schools where there is a demand for them. Existing local authority schools could carry on as before if they wished, subject only to potential competition from new, state-funded, independent schools.
Our proposals for reform are deliberately meant to be gradual – allowing the benefits of choice and competition to be introduced with a minimum of disruption. This recognises that although there is room for improvement, the current system works well for many people.
However, our research shows that there is an urgent need for reforms which help those who are being let down by the current system – the most disadvantaged in our society. Therefore, we propose that the entitlement scheme should run for two years solely for parents of children on free school meals. This would not only immediately give them the power of choice that they currently lack; it would also allow time for new schools to be set up so easing capacity constraints.
After two years, the scheme would be extended to all parents in Scotland. However, we think that pupils in receipt of free school meals or with special educational needs should receive a permanent supplement on top of their entitlement paid by central government. This would ensure that such pupils are more attractive to schools so helping to achieve the objective of extending opportunity and social mobility.
Reform Scotland believes that the education debate in Scotland needs to look at how we can incorporate greater choice and competition into our system because, in many other countries, they are essential elements in raising overall standards of educational attainment. They can also serve the interests of the most disadvantaged in our society, which is the crucial moral test any policy must pass.