School choice for all

School choice exists in Britain today – for those on higher incomes. Around 7 per cent of children are educated privately. Others can afford to move into the catchment areas of good state schools. But most parents cannot afford to do so. The result is inequity, with choice confined to the better off and poor schools concentrated in areas of greatest deprivation.

In other countries, school choice is available to all parents regardless of their means. There are many different systems. But all share the same principle: children should attend schools according to their parents’ choice and the money provided by taxpayers for school education should follow parents’ choices, whether to schools provided by government or to schools operated by the independent and voluntary sectors.

A key feature of school choice systems is the freedom for good schools to expand and new schools to open. This is the precondition for raising educational standards. It allows more pupils to attend schools achieving higher standards and it gives less popular schools an incentive to raise standards.

Incentives of this kind do not exist in the current British system. The provision of school places is not determined by choice but is centrally planned by Local Education Authorities. Although parents can express a preference of school, in practice good schools cannot expand and so popular schools are full. Parents cannot use government funding to choose independent schools.