Towards the end of 2009, shortly after I announced my intention to set up England’s first free school, I debated with Fiona Millar on Newsnight about the pros and cons of allowing parents to set up schools. Fiona had been having this debate, or ones very like it, for at least 20 years and it soon became apparent that I was outmatched. I felt like an amateur who’d stepped into the ring with Mike Tyson.
After five minutes, as I lay bleeding at her feet, she turned to Jeremy Paxman and said: ‘I don’t even know why we’re bothering to have this debate. Toby’s not actually going to do this. Setting up a school is so complicated, it’s not something a group of parents is ever going to manage.’
In the two years that followed, there were moments I feared Fiona might be right, but I also had reason to be grateful to her: the thought of proving her wrong kept me going.
Needless to say, the success of the free school I co-founded, or the 390 others that have opened since, has done little to change Fiona’s mind. Indeed, this month she is publishing a book entitled The Best For My Child: Did the Schools Market Deliver?, which argues the panoply of changes to education policy that have taken place since Kenneth Baker’s 1988 Education Reform Act have done little to improve outcomes. According to her, we need to move away from parental choice, which has led to social segregation, towards fairness and equality.
The first thing to be said about Fiona’s argument is that she misrepresents the reforms of the past 30 years as a ‘market experiment’ and treats the current state of affairs, which she refers to as ‘the wild west’, as if it were the apotheosis of free-market radicalism. In this way, if she can show that the impact of these changes has been negative, she can discredit the intellectual foundations of the education reform movement.
But of course, the policy initiatives of the past three decades have stopped well short of those recommended by Milton Friedman. No voucher system has been introduced, at least not beyond the nursery sector, and no for-profit company has been allowed to set up a taxpayer-funded school. The free-schools policy lowered some of the barriers to entry, but as Fiona pointed out, starting a school in the state sector is still fiendishly difficult. And for a variety of reasons, market failure doesn’t result in schools closing. What we have at the moment is a classic English fudge rather than a radical experiment.
But even allowing for that, has the impact of these reforms been negative? That’s a hard question to answer because there’s little hard data about the quality of schools before 1988 — you cannot compare exam results before and after because that was the year that O-levels and CSEs were replaced with GCSEs. I have finished my own review of the impact of various education reforms for the Institute of Economic Affairs and I wrestled with this issue. One trusted source is the OECD’s Programme of International Student Assessment (PISA), which evaluates the education systems of different countries based on tests taken by 15-year-olds in reading, maths and science. If you compare the scores of English schoolchildren in 2006 with their scores in 2015 (the pre-2006 data is unreliable) they have gone up slightly in reading and gone down in maths and science. Not much evidence there of the positive impact of the academies policy, introduced in 2002, or the free schools policy.
However, if you look at the performance of children in Scotland and Wales, where there are no academies or free schools, they have declined further during the same period. Wales has fared particularly badly and one reason for that may be the Welsh government’s decision in 2001 to scrap the league tables introduced by Kenneth Baker. According to a team of researchers at Bristol University, that is one of the reasons a large attainment gap between Wales and other regions of the UK has opened up in the past two decades. So while the performance of England’s schoolchildren probably has declined slightly in the past 20 years or so, it looks as if the various reforms introduced since 1988 have arrested that decline.
My conclusion is that the impact of the education reforms of the past 30 years has been positive, particularly those introduced since 2010. This isn’t the time to abandon the ‘market-isation’ of England’s public education system, but to double down.