Hard lessons, difficult choices: dilemmas of parent-run schools

Research shows that government regulation is necessary to improve the quality of charter schools

The most appealing aspect of an often bizarre Conservative election platform was the proposal to make it far easier for new schools to enter the state-funded sector. Under Tory proposals, anyone who passes regulatory muster can set up a school and bid to attract pupils, who will come neatly packaged with state funding. The Conservatives want to expand dramatically the range of choices, introducing new, innovative schools and perhaps reinvigorating older schools with the bracing winds of competition. But will it work?

The Conservatives point to Sweden and to the US, both of which have introduced policies along these lines. In their manifesto they wrote that in Sweden, “standards have risen across the board as every school does its best to satisfy parents”. The evidence is more ambiguous than that. Early studies of the Swedish reforms looked impressive; more recent work has raised some questions.

In the US, the evidence is more encouraging, but – warns Joshua Angrist of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – it comes with a health warning. British reformers sometimes talk casually about the benefits of American “charter schools” as though this was some well-defined category. But different US states have very different regimes. Some have simply liberalised entry without much regulatory oversight. Others, such as Massachusetts, are stricter and close down charter schools that are failing to deliver.

The most credible research studies a particular subset of schools, typically in New York and Massachusetts. They are typically “no excuses” schools that emphasise discipline, long hours and short holidays. They are oversubscribed. The disadvantage here is that researchers are looking only at charter schools that parents already reckon are succeeding. But the advantage is that places are allocated by lottery and so researchers can compare lottery winners and losers. The encouraging conclusion is that such charter schools can be dramatically effective, especially for poor children and ethnic minorities.

Several questions remain unanswered, however. One is about how much autonomy charter schools should really have. The ideal combination in the US seems to be freedom from dealing with teacher unions and public school schedules, but nevertheless a tight leash as far as performance is concerned. The schools which give their pupils “no excuses” are allowed few themselves. More laissez-faire approaches to charter schools in other states appear to work less well, which suggests that parent power alone is not enough.

A second question is whether charter schools boost the performance of other schools, hollow them out, or do nothing to them. In Sweden, the signals are mixed. In the US, I am aware of no credible evidence either way. If charter schools are to raise the standards of regular schools, parents need to be able to distinguish good schools from bad. Some new research from Simon Burgess of Bristol University, Ellen Greaves of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, and others, suggests that parents in the UK do sensibly weigh up the academic quality of schools. Parents do like schools with low poverty rates – which might push towards segregation – but they don’t seem to care about race. Poor parents have broadly similar preferences to rich parents.

This suggests that more choice can raise standards in British schools. The Conservative policy is well worth trying. But there is one more obstacle: the Tories need to be willing to shut less successful schools if standards are truly to rise. This has proved a tough sell in Sweden. Will David Cameron’s softer, kinder Tories do better?

Tim Harford’s latest book is ‘Dear Undercover Economist’ (Little, Brown)

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