Hard News by Russell Brown


Research Fail

I don't have time this morning to go through Step Change: Success the only Option, Report of the Inter-Party Working Group for School Choice – the school choice policy paper released yesterday by a group Act, National and Maori party MPs chaired by Heather Roy, but even a skim suggests it's a thin piece of work.

The apparently evidential part, 'The international experience', kicks off by lauding that familiar touchstone of the school choice lobby, Sweden's "free schools":

The free-school market has shifted from being a small school and not-for-profit sector to a growing for-profit sector that is varied and sensitive to personalised learning … Free schools achieve high ratings of parental and student satisfaction. They have open enrolment and receive municipal per capita funding.

Intentionally or not, this rosy view carefully avoids the realities outlined in a Guardian story last week:

Per Thulberg, director general of the Swedish National Agency for Education, said the schools had "not led to better results" in Sweden …

Thulberg told BBC's Newsnight programme that where these schools had improved their results, it was because the pupils they took had "better backgrounds" than those who attended the institutions the free schools had replaced.

Which tallies with what we already know about the real-world effect of competitive "school choice" systems. But it gets worse:

Recent international studies show that England is ranked higher than Sweden for pupils' maths and science knowledge. In the 2007 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (Timss), Sweden's ranking for science fell further than any other country's. The Swedes have carried out similar international comparative studies, as well as detailed national research, which confirmed a drop in standards.

And this is the system that Heather Roy and her chums would have us adopt. I can't help but wonder if they did any real research, as oppose to merely cribbing from lobbyists.

The paper also claims that this PriceWaterhouse Coopers report on Britain's "academy school" system found that "academies have powerfully and positively affected outcomes for the lowest-achieving students academically".

What the PWC report actually says is that "The data provide a mixed picture on teaching and learning," and many of the positive findings relate to an autonomy that New Zealand schools already enjoy relative to those under local authority control in Britain.

There are many other controversial elements to the policy paper, including odd and impractical proposals to bus children between "providers" through the school day and what appears to be a very complex and bureaucratic system of internal payments, budgetary incentives and top-and-tailing of school rolls.

Remarkably, there is no suggestion at all of how the proposed system might mesh with national standards, a major reform already underway.

I've been critical of the government for shying away from bold ideas lately. Moreover, the failure of the 20% rump of pupils who underachieve may need innovative thinking to fix. As the parent of special-needs child failed by the system, I'm all too aware that things are not perfect.

But it's hard to embrace this particular bit of boldness.
A few good ideas here jostle for room with mere cant. The paper pays lip service to flexibility even as it proposes a weirdly complex and highly prescriptive new structure for schooling.

Basically, this reads to me far more like an ideological fantasy than it does evidence-based policy development. I'd be grateful for any further analysis readers can provide.

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