Lessons from England

Unregulated choice has the potential to increase problems of inequity and polarization.

The following is an interview with Geoff Whitty, a professor of Sociology of Education at the University of London. Whitty is the author of a number of books on educational policy, most recently “Specialization and Choice in Urban Education: The City Technology College Experiment” (Routledge, 1993). He was interviewed by Barbara Miner of Rethinking Schools while on a recent visit to the United States..

Q: A number of education reform efforts in the United States are similar to initiatives in England and Wales. Can you summarize England’s reforms?

The Thatcher government introduced a series of education acts during the 1980s, which were continued by the Major government. These acts did two sorts of things, leading to what are called “quasi-markets” in education. One set of reforms involves parental choice and devolution — what in this country is called decentralization. In essence, responsibility for decision-making was taken away from local education authorities, or what you call school districts, and devolved to schools and parents. The schools were also allowed to compete for students.

The other set of reforms instituted a national curriculum and national tests. Despite rhetoric about “rolling back” the state, this set of reforms vested more power in the central government.

Interestingly, the education reforms in England and Wales have as much to do with transferring power to the central government as with giving autonomy to parents and schools, even if the rhetoric accompanying reform often suggests that education has been taken “out of politics” and returned to parents

Q: Can you explain how devolution works?

The first set of policies on devolution was introduced in 1980 when the government eased restrictions on parents choosing schools. The government also introduced the “assisted places scheme,” whereby lower-income parents of so-called academically able children could get government assistance to send them to some of the elite private schools. A lot of people saw this initiative as a stalking horse for a full-scale voucher program, although it hasn’t developed into that.

More important is the 1988 education reform act, which made four major changes to the way the school system operates (apart from the national curriculum and national testing).

First, it provided for high schools called city technology colleges, which were set up outside of the local education authorities and were funded in part directly by central government and partly by business trusts. These schools were expected to experiment with new forms of school governance and curriculum and were partly the inspiration for the New American Schools Movement as originally envisaged by your President Bush.

Second, the act introduced grant-maintained schools. These were existing schools where the parents voted to opt their school out of the local education authority. The schools were then run as self-governing trusts, receiving their funding from central government. These, in some ways, have been the inspiration for charter schools in the United States. The government hoped that opting out would break the power of left-wing local education authorities, but in practice schools in Conservative-dominated areas have proved keener to opt out than those in Labour-controlled ones.

Third, in the vast majority of schools that chose to remain with their local education authority, management was devolved to each school’s governing body and to the head teacher (or school principal) in a way that goes much further than site-based management in most U.S. school districts. In many ways, even these schools have as much autonomy as charter schools. They receive their funding on the basis of the ages and numbers of students and they can spend the money more or less as they like.

A fourth element of the 1988 reform act was the introduction of open enrollment, so that schools could recruit as many students as they wanted. The idea of open enrollment, linked with local management, was that funds would follow students and schools would thrive only as long as they attracted students.

Q: What has been the educational effect of devolution?

One can’t deny that parental choice and school autonomy can benefit individual schools, teachers, and students, and even have their progressive moments. But there is no clear evidence that parental choice or school autonomy increases achievement, certainly not on their own. One study found that schools which gained funding by this new system were able to increase performance, but it wasn’t clear whether autonomy or the extra money was the explanation.

My biggest concern is that the studies in England and in other countries indicate that these reforms create inequity, or rather exacerbate inequity, unless they are very carefully regulated. You seem to get an increasing polarization among schools, both on academic and social grounds.

When you link school autonomy and school choice, the advantaged schools and the advantaged parents gravitate toward each other and the disadvantaged families are left in schools with falling enrollment, falling funding, and, as a result, more difficulty in climbing out of the spiral of decline.

It seems important to me that the studies have shown that the schools having the most budget problems as a result of devolution were often those schools that had a high number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Interestingly, while a market approach exacerbates differences between schools on the basis of class, race, and ethnicity, it has not encouraged innovation in terms of school organization, curriculum, or pedagogy. Even city technology colleges, which were explicitly designed to promote educational innovation, seem to be favoring traditional academic approaches to education.

Q: In the United States, supporters of choice and decentralization argue it will expand opportunities for those who are least well-served by our schools. But, in the English experience, there appears to be a gap between the rhetoric and reality of choice and devolution.

Initiatives such as the assisted places schemes and open enrollment enabled some individuals to escape poor schools, although many fewer than the rhetoric would suggest. But because such schemes focus on individuals, they detract from a focus on the continuing disadvantage of working-class and Black groups as a whole. The position of those groups has worsened for several reasons. For example, there is now a safety valve for discontented parents, which in turn means there may be less parental pressure to improve low-achieving schools than before. I don’t want to make it seem that there was nothing wrong with the schools or suggest that escape isn’t an understandable reaction, but this individualistic approach to reform can make matters worse. Certainly, the research has shown that it leads to increasing polarization.

Let me give one example that’s in the news right now. There is a school district in Yorkshire where teachers recently threatened to strike because they had so many supposedly “unteachable” students. The school was in a local education authority where a number of the schools had opted out. These had been freer than other schools to choose their own students and they had also excluded students whom they found difficult. That led to a concentration of “less able” and “at-risk” students in a couple of schools and one of them was where the teachers threatened to strike. The local educational authority, meanwhile, claimed that due to the government reforms, it had little power to intervene, either to make sure that there was a balance of students among the schools or to provide help to the failing school.

Q: Can schools that opt out of the local district choose their students?

There are some regulations that apply to all schools, but the government allows opt-out schools, or what here might be called charter schools, greater freedom than others in the ways in which they select their students. Some already select a proportion of their students on the basis of academic achievement, and there is now a proposal that they be allowed to select up to 50% of their students on that basis. That’s what is open and above-board. But a research study has shown that 30% of opted-out schools, or charter-type schools, also have been using covert selection procedures to ensure they have the top students or the best-motivated students. Even where they claim to take the full range of academic ability, they sometimes select only those at the top end of each ability band. Or the school prospectus may emphasize particular strengths and specialties that appeal to the sorts of high-achieving families they want to attract. There was a study in New Zealand, which has a similar reform: autonomous schools used a lottery selection process for a year and that was the only year studied in which academic and social polarization declined.

Q: Is the problem with the reforms themselves or with the failure to institute regulations that would prevent creaming?

Creaming is certainly the biggest threat to equity in a quasi-market system. The problem is that the rhetoric of the marketplace tends to work against regulation. In England, you will find that the pro-market reformers want to remove those few restrictions that do exist and make quasi-markets more like real markets. It is certainly the case that there are potentially some positive elements in these reforms. But the positive aspects would require not only more regulation but an entirely different set of assumptions about how you organize schools, rather than relying on the market metaphor.

Creaming is not the only mechanism to select students. In city technology colleges, as with some of your charter schools, the schools are allowed to select students that meet the school’s “mission.” For example, there might be a requirement that the parents guarantee that the children will stay in school through age 18. Or a requirement that they spend a longer day in school. Or that they have an aptitude for a particular subject, say technology. These requirements can have both positive and negative consequences. They mean that schools can focus on particular sets of students and sets of activities. But they also mean that the schools can screen out students, so that, for instance, city technology colleges seem to have an ethos that favors students from some minority ethnic groups more than others.

We have to be very careful that a school’s mission and ethos is not a cover for subtle forms of racism. One principal, for example, said in effect that his school emphasizes qualities and aspirations present in abundance in South Asian families; he used this to explain why South Asians were `over-represented’ in the school. But some have claimed that this was a deliberate means of excluding African-Caribbean students.

Q: In your writings, you have referred to the difference, in education, between citizens’ rights and consumers’ rights. Can you explain what you mean?

In the reforms begun by the Thatcher government, the emphasis has been on the right of individuals to choose. This emphasis appears to give everyone equal rights in the marketplace. But individuals are not equal in terms of the information or other resources they have available, nor are they equally desirable as clients for the schools to which they are applying. So it is necessary to think about whether individuals should be the only people making decisions about school choice, which after all is about the education of the next generation of the community, not just about the education of individual children.

When the emphasis is on individuals, you may neglect what would be in the best interest of the community as a whole. One tendency is increasing polarization. Kids from similar backgrounds and similar abilities gravitate toward similar schools. Now that cannot, prima facie, be in the best interests of an integrated community. It seems to me and to a number of other policy analysts that we need to find a way of better balancing the rights of individual parents to choose with the needs of the community to have an education system that is in the best interests of the society as a whole.

Q: Can you explain the national standards and curriculum instituted under the Thatcher government?

In theory, the national curriculum is the way of holding everything together. While you have fragmentation and atomization of types of schools through marketization, the national curriculum appears to make sure that, no matter what school people attend, they study the same basic curriculum. While a national curriculum seems to contradict a market-place approach, it in fact has been used to stimulate the market, because the tests have been used to rank schools as they try to attract students. At the same time, it gives more power over education, not less, to the central government.

The national curriculum consists of three core subjects English, math, and science and seven foundation subjects. There are programs of studies for each of those subjects and all students ages 5 to 16 were initially required to follow this curriculum. Finally, the students are assessed through a series of national tests at ages 7, 11, 14, and 16.

The curriculum was gradually introduced, beginning in 1989, and revised on a number of occasions. There have been some positive gains in England for example, more girls have studied science in the upper grades. But there have also been a lot of negative results.

The programs of study for the national curriculum were set up by working parties established by the government. The government intervened quite heavily in designing the programs, and this has led to an emphasis on English and European history within the history curriculum and an emphasis on the traditional canons within the English curriculum where the government overruled its own working party. As a result, you have a narrowing of the curriculum and a rather nationalistic conception of culture, rather than a curriculum that speaks to the diversity of modern British society.

Q: Can you explain the boycott against the national tests?

The national curriculum and tests have become the main symbol of a common educational system and have provided a focus around which people can struggle collectively.

Although the tests were initially proposed as a way to help diagnose the learning needs of children, they have been used instead to rank schools based on student performance tables. The performance tables are not based on what we call value-added statistics, but on raw statistics of how well the children in a particular school have done. A value-added approach, in contrast, would show how well the children were doing when they started at the school, given the background they came from, and how much the school improved performance relative to what one might have expected.

When you use raw statistics, the schools on the top of the performance table are those which attract academically able, socially advantaged kids. You can see how that feeds into further polarization.

Because a lot of teachers, eventually backed by the teachers unions, were concerned the national tests were educationally unsound and were going to be used to rank schools, they boycotted them. The boycott got a good deal of support from parents, especially those who were not so keen on the market-oriented reforms. Even though the Thatcher government had nearly destroyed the power of the unions in the 1980s, by the early 1990s union alliances with parents and school governing bodies against this use of the tests forced the government to revise the assessment.

The boycott started with a few schools, particularly with teachers of English, and escalated into a national movement backed not only by traditionally militant unions but also by one of the least militant ones. So many schools boycotted the tests in 1992/93 that the government could not process the test results.

The irony is that, given labor legislation in England, the teachers could not directly boycott the tests on educational or political grounds but only on the technical grounds that they constituted an excessive work load. So, while there were some gains in that the government slimmed down the national curriculum and gave teachers more scope to vary the curriculum, the changes also led to a form of testing that was even more educationally questionable more standardized, more paper and pencil tests.

On a potentially more positive note, the government has agreed that it will look at introducing a value-added element. Initially, the government was opposed to this, claiming that value-added was mumbo jumbo which allowed educators to obfuscate information and to hide failure.

Q: How might one account for the striking similarities between market-oriented reforms in education in the United States and in England?

There is a New Right policy community that shares information among different countries. But such networks exist among policymakers of all political persuasions.

I don’t believe one could have had a Thatcherite revolution in England or a Republican revolution in the United States unless their proposals had struck a chord with the real experiences of many people. There have been negative experiences with mass bureaucratic systems of education. There have been changes in the nature of society that have created demands for more community involvement in the running of schools to make them reflect more closely the needs of different communities.

The conservative rhetoric of reform played upon those sentiments, even though the reality was not always consistent with the rhetoric. Indeed, in practice these reforms have not proven to respond to such concerns and have not met communities’ real needs. They appear to offer choices but leave the basic structures of disadvantage virtually untouched.

I would not accuse the reformers of bad faith. They believe that centralized school systems are failing and that their reforms give real choice to everyone. I think devolution, in particular, can be understood in those terms. But my own view is that the reformers are sociologically naive. They are merely passing the problems down the line and saying to parents and local schools: “We will give you the opportunity to sort it out.” But exporting a crisis is not the same as solving it. While some schools undoubtedly do better than others, much of the difference in achievement between schools results from structural causes over which individual schools have little, if any, influence. Giving apparently equal opportunities to people in an unequal society is not real equality of opportunity. Often it can mean blaming people for a situation over which they really have no control. Inequalities that are a failure of government come to be seen as failures of school management or even of parents who make inappropriate choices. Worse, the devolution of responsibility has often coincided with a reduction in the resources available to schools to do their job.

Q: What might be the outlines of a progressive education reform agenda?

This is something we are all struggling with. At the least, we need to ensure that there is more regulation of devolution in order to ensure equity. But the big question for progressive educators is how to institute such regulation and make sure it is legitimate and acceptable to people. I think we have got to move away from the notion that regulation is best done by distant bureaucrats. That route, which we went down before, helped created support for marketized policies.

We have got to look at what sorts of bodies, maybe community education councils, can give local communities a real say in how equity policies are introduced and regulated, so that they are not just seen as inhibiting individual choice but as doing something positive for the community. We have got to give people voice as well as choice. The more voice communities have, the less they will see individual choice as the only alternative.

We might, for instance, want to look at proportional representation on community councils, so that all communities feel they are being heard. This leads into all those areas which are not just about education but about the whole future of democratic governance. Things like local school councils provide the opportunity to experiment with such reforms. If that aspect of devolution the involvement of community is given more attention, as opposed to the market element, we might learn some important lessons not just about better forms of schools but about better forms of democracy.

Some of these reforms respond to real needs. Progressive educators also need to respond to those real needs, but in a way that is not illusory. In other words, we have to figure out how to involve communities in shaping the future of education, rather than promoting reforms based on individuals competitively seeking out the best for their own children regardless of the consequences for the school system as a whole. The current reforms invite parents to take the competitive approach, and you can hardly blame parents when there is no apparent alternative. Similarly, schools currently have little choice but to compete with each other, when surely we ought to be encouraging them to cooperate in the best interests of the wider community. .

Some of the ideas in this interview are examined at length in the forthcoming book, Devolution and Choice in Education: The State, the School and the Market, by Geoff Whitty, Sally Power, and David Halpin (Open University Press).