Reform Scotland

Guest Column- Geoff Mawdsley in the Scotsman

This article by Geoff Mawdsley appeared in the Scotsman

Reform Scotland’s latest report, ‘Parent Power’, sets out how we might restore our reputation by applying the principles of greater choice and competition to our education system to raise overall standards and extend educational opportunity.

There are undoubtedly many very good state schools in Scotland, providing high quality education. However, the performance of our system in comparative international studies of educational attainment is, at best, mixed and leaves plenty of room for improvement.

The most recent Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) placed Scotland 26th and below England, while the latest Trends in International Maths and Science Survey (TIMSS) showed Scotland was below average for both Primary 5 and Secondary 2 pupils in maths, and roughly average for both age groups in science.

The latest Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) did put Scotland above the OECD average. But our results were still not as good as in previous years.

We should aspire to do much better and there is compelling evidence from other countries that competition can help raise overall educational standards. This was confirmed by an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) study which found 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.’

So far, this insight has made little impact on the education debate here in Scotland.

What is more worrying is that the Scottish education system is increasingly failing to fulfil its traditional role as a facilitator of social mobility.

Our research has highlighted that, regardless of local authority area, schools with a higher percentage of pupils on free school meals generally achieved lower exam results. Pupils at these schools were also less likely to enter further or higher education, training or work when leaving school.

An interesting aspect 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 is not helping them 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. However, if an independent school’s fees were higher than the value of the entitlement, parents would not be able to top –up the difference themselves.

The second part of our proposals is that there is a need to set up new and more diverse schools to provide the competition that the OECD’s study highlighted as being the key driver of improved standards.

Of course, there is nothing to prevent new independent schools being set up at present. However, giving parents the entitlement would 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. That would not only give them the power of choice that they currently lack as soon as possible, 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 and this would be 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.