More Evidence that Gillard’s Faith in Competition is Misplaced

Just as John Howard and David Kemp did, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard have placed their faith in competition to improve school performance. This faith is proving entirely misplaced with many recent studies around the world showing that competition and markets in education fail to improve student performance and create greater social segregation between schools.

The latest evidence on the failure of competition in schooling comes from a study on the impact of choice of religious schools on student achievement presented at the annual conference of the Royal Economic Society in the UK in April.

The study by academics at the London School of Economics and the Institute of Education concluded that there is “significant evidence that religious schools are associated with higher levels of pupil sorting across schools, but no evidence that competition from faith schools raises area-wide pupil attainment”.

One of the co-authors of the study, Anna Vignoles from the London School of Economics, told The Economist magazine: “What is described as a quasi-market clearly is not working” (23 April 2009). The Economist itself was forced to concede that the pro-market and competition approach to education by Britain’s Labor Government has failed: “That it hasn’t worked is clear”.

Religious schools (called faith schools) funded by the government are a significant feature of the English schooling system, educating 15 per cent of secondary school children. They are a legacy of the 1902 settlement between the Government and the Church of England and Roman Catholic churches for their schools to be transferred to the state sector. There is relatively high demand for places at religious secondary schools.

The study found no proof that providing parents with the choice of a religious secondary school either raised results or helped drive up standards in other local schools. Students in areas with more faith schools made no greater educational progress in secondary school in any of the four subject areas tested than students in areas with fewer faith schools.

The study also analyzed data on student sorting between schools and school stratification to provide an explanation as to why no competitive effects were found from the presence of faith schools. It found that the presence of faith schools is associated with greater stratification of local schools in the social background of their student intake. There was consistent positive correlation between the level of social and ability segregation between schools and the number of religious or Catholic schools in an area.

The authors of the study said that they were not able to make any causal assertions about why faith schools were associated with increased social segregation. They said that schools may be responding to competition by “cream-skimming” the more able pupils to raise league table performance. Alternatively, it may simply be the case that higher income families are choosing to apply to faith schools.

The study concluded that the tendency for many schooling systems to become stratified in the long-run is one of the problems with operating a quasi-market in education. It says that this stratification is a problem for policy-makers who hope to use choice and competition to raise standards. One of the co-authors of the study, Rebecca Allen, lecturer in the economics of education at the Institute of Education at the University of London, wrote in the Guardian (23 April 2009):

bq.“This sends an important message about other choice reforms, particularly those introduced into more egalitarian schooling systems such as Sweden. Choice may be an effective route to improving standards in the short-run through competition for pupils, but if the choice system is also stratifying, the incentive for schools to compete will eventually start to decline. Any short-term gains are unlikely to persist in the long run.”

The study provides yet another warning that the policy of the Rudd Government to increase competition between schools by reporting school results and publishing league tables is likely to exacerbate social division in education in Australia without improving student achievement.

Trevor Cobbold

The details of the paper presented to the Royal Economic Society annual conference are as follows: Rebecca Allen and Anna Vignoles. Can school competition improve standards? The case of faith schools in England. Available from this link

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