Multiple choices

8th April, 2006

The Undercover Economist – FT Magazine, 8 April

Anguish in Hackney. Our neighbours’ daughter – let’s call her Georgina – just missed out on a place at the local comprehensive school, a brand-new “academy”, well-funded, staffed by uber-teachers, designed by Sir Richard Rogers, with meals by the River Cafe and an organic kitchen garden laid out by Jamie Oliver.
The school is a five-minute walk away and Georgina is the brightest girl in her class, but she was unlucky. With eight applicants for every place, her name simply didn’t emerge from a carefully stratified lottery designed to draw children from every ability range and from near and far.
Now what? If her parents do nothing, Georgina will have to commute across London to a school with places going begging. No prizes for guessing whether it will be a good school. But her parents won’t leave it like that. They may head for commuterland, but more likely will remortgage the house to put her through private school. Neither option is appealing to both parents who work for modest wages at an inner-city charity, but the alternative is worse.
It’s a familiar tale of middle-class woe, but we should look again at what it tells us about the state’s attempt to force mixed-ability schooling. The careful lottery seems to have made the swanky academy inclusive, but failed to prevent segregation in other schools. The lesson: provide a good enough school for free and you can select whatever mix of children you like, but provide a bad school and you will not prevent parents from finding an escape route.
Enthusiasts of mixed-ability education might insist that we should try harder to prevent this stratification. They are determined that bright kids go to school with dim kids, rich kids go to school with poor kids. It is apparently perfectly acceptable to use people as sacrificial pawns in a utopian game, as long as they are under the age of 16.
Why not abandon the oppressive and counterproductive attempt at social engineering and let parents send their children to whichever school they prefer? The easiest way to do that would be to sell all the state schools to Tesco or Virgin and give parents the money to pay for their children’s education. Schools with pupils would get cash. Schools without, would not. The local centre of excellence would need to expand and open new branches; the dreadful schools nearby would have to close because of good old-fashioned bankruptcy.
A big objection to letting parents choose the school is that poor parents aren’t able to choose wisely, or do not care enough to do so. Recent US research suggests that this is a particularly insidious prejudice.
Parents in the US are allowed to request specific elementary school teachers for their children, and almost always get their requests granted. So economists Brian Jacob and Lars Lefgren compared the requests with the evaluations of school principals. The results will surprise some: wealthier parents requested teachers who were good at keeping their pupils happy, while poorer parents demanded teachers who had a gift for boosting test scores. Far from not caring about scholarly achievement, poorer families crave it.
A fully private system of schools is likely to horrify even the enlightened readers of the FT, but economists always like to ask, “compared with what?”. Georgina’s parents will make choices and they will spend money; it’s just a shame neither the money nor Georgina will go to a local school.

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