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Targets, Voice or Choice: Options for the Education Sector

Time (GMT +00) 13:00 14:00


Philip Collins, Director - Social Market Foundation

Professor Chris Colclough, Professorial Fellow - Institute of Development Studies


Simon Maxwell, Director - ODI

1. The sixth meeting in the series was on the subject of 'Targets, Voice and Choice: Options for the Education Sector' and was held at ODI on 1 December. The speakers were Philip Collins, Director of the Social Market Foundation and Professor Chris Colclough, Fellow of the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex. The meeting was chaired by Simon Maxwell.

2. Philip Collins spoke first. He began by saying that a combination of targets, voice and choice was needed to improve public service delivery. The issues were relatively known in the target and voice areas. His own opinion was that the key was to make the right choices with regard to choice. This would boost voice options, and, in the end, the importance of targets would diminish.

3. Targets were, for well-known reasons, a poor proxy for exerting pressure on the public service. There had been some successes, for example with regard to literacy and numeracy, and it was interesting to ask why an external instrument had been needed to improve standards in schools. Nevertheless, it was well-known that targets created perverse incentives and were not optimal.

4. With regard to voice, this was an option that the Left was often very comfortable with, but turned out to be relatively weak. In the UK education sector, for example, it was difficult to recruit governors, but even if all posts were filled, this would still only involve 1% of the adult population. Voice options were always likely to be a minority interest and did not lead to genuine "co-production" between the public and private sectors.

5. This left choice as the way forward. There had in fact been significant innovations with regard to choice in the UK since the passage of the 1988 Education Act - and it was worth noting that the negative outcomes foreseen, such as greater segregation, had not in fact occurred. Still, choice was limited, and in education mostly exercised through the housing market. It was notable that house prices in areas close to what were regarded as good schools were on average 12% higher than in other areas. Pupils wishing to select, usually from middle-class households, also had to travel longer distances.

6. It was important, then, to think about how choice might work in the future, and to address the current objections to the exercise of choice. There were four of these. First, with regard to the cost of transport, it was clear that there would need to be a subsidy if the poor were to be able to exercise choice options. It was notable that only 6% of children travelled to school by school bus in the UK, compared to a figure of 50% in the US.

7. Second, it would be necessary to address the question of information deficits, viz the argument that making choices was "too hard for poor people". Philip Collins did not believe this argument, but there were models on offer that could help people to make better choices. He cited the experiments with patient care advisors in London, and suggested that local authorities might become navigators, to help people through the system.

8. Third, it was often argued against choice options that they required significant and expensive surplus capacity. This was probably true, but there was already spare capacity in the system, with 8% of school places empty. Furthermore, it would be relatively easy to increase capacity by liberalising the supply side, for example not insisting on schools closing if they fell below a certain number.

9. Fourth, there was an issue of geography and catchment areas. This was the argument that choice was limited because there were defined catchment areas from which pupils could not stray. This was a spurious argument and required authorities to lift administrative constraints. For example, rather than a town having two schools with separate catchment areas, it would be possible to define the whole town as a single catchment area. The issue would then become one of allocating places. Echoing a remark of Julian Le Grand's the previous week, Philip Collins insisted that the choices should not be made by the providers, but by the clients or customers. In this case, it would be necessary to insist that schools used ballots to allocate places.

10. Finally, there was an argument that choice would drive a wedge between the social classes, because of differential access and differences between schools. Philip Collins' key argument was that this would depend very much on how policy was managed. For example, if providers (i.e. schools) choose pupils, as was the case in New Zealand and Chile, then inequities were likely to rise. If they did not, as was the case in Sweden, then inequities did not rise. In addition, it was necessary for the Government to intervene rapidly in the case of failing schools, so that children were not disadvantaged.

11. Concluding, Philip Collins recognised that there were important audit and inspection issues associated with a move to greater choice. The UK was particularly well-advanced in this area. It was also important to carry out more research on the relative cost-effectiveness of these various options (taking account also of the improvement in quality). It was also necessary to emphasise the various kinds of choice, for example with regard to content, packaging of the curriculum, etc. as well as choice of schools. This had been referred to as the "drip-drip-drip" of choice.

12. Chris Colclough said that he would speak mainly about targets, and illustrate how they could provide more voice. He reminded the audience that education was strongly represented in the Millennium Development Goals, particularly through the focus on universal primary education by 2015 and various gender parity targets. These targets were underpinned by legislative instruments like the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The legislative instruments had been weak, however. Reporting was patchy, with as many as 80 countries failing to report on the Convention on the Rights of the Child. It was dissatisfaction in this area that led to the adoption of specific goals, including those adopted on education for all in Dakar, Senegal.

13. Adoption of the EFA goals had indeed led to better reporting, and he was able to report on the UNESCO reporting system for which he had been responsible. The Annual Reports provided a review of achievement, focusing on both quantitative and qualitative aspects. Chris Colclough argued that this reporting structure had, to many people's surprise, been surprisingly effective. It provided consistency and coherence to development programmes, but also brought education development issues into the public domain. In particular, ministers did not like being identified as poor performers with respect to indicators.

14. A number of points were raised in discussion.

i. First, there was a debate about whether or not targets were appropriate. Philip Collins had argued against targets, but Chris Colclough has argued in favour. Could these differences be reconciled? One suggestion was that the way to disentangle the debate was to separate entitlement issues (which were largely what the EFA targets were about) from performance-related issues. This seemed plausible, though some argued against education targets as entitlements. And interesting question was whether the quality indicator, which Chris Colclough had identified as a powerful engine, was really an entitlement, or whether it formed part of performance management.

ii. There was a separate discussion about the extent to which targets really provided a vehicle for voice. Philip Collins had, on the whole, been sceptical. Chris Colclough had not. He was asked about whether or not the use of targets was powerful at sub-national level. His answer was that targets could be very powerful politically, particularly if linked to greater information. For example, communities often became much more involved when they had better information about school performance and funding. He also referred to the existence of local plans for education for all, which were important for both politics and planning.

iii. The conversation then turned to choice. There was debate about the value of choice options in the UK, and also about whether they could be extended to developing countries. On the first, some speakers felt that it was difficult to exercise choice where basic entitlements (e.g. universal primary education) were not in place. It was also difficult to exercise choice when the decisions being made were "lumpy": unlike health, where repeat decisions were being made, in education the choices people made often committed them for 4-6 year periods. Philip Collins acknowledged this problem.

iv. With regard to developing countries, the importance of the private sector was again stressed. This was not a case where the state sector was already dominant and had to be reformed, but rather a question about which was the best path to achieving a functioning education system. Examples of large private sectors had been cited in previous meetings (e.g. Pakistan). There were also other countries where, for example, mission schools had been very important. Some countries had developed interesting ways of funding the private sector through grant-aided status. It was important to note, however, that the growth of the private sector in developing countries often resulted directly from the ineptitude of the state. Where schools were very thinly scattered on the ground, it might be more appropriate to build the state system first. In any case, the demand for alternative systems tended to be less in developing countries.

15. Concluding the meeting, Simon Maxwell again emphasised the importance of the discussion. Developing countries, in particular, did face real choices about which trajectory to follow. There were certainly lessons to learn from the UK and other developed country experience. From a UK perspective, there might also be lessons to learn the other way.

Simon Maxwell

3 December 2004


Similar to session 6, this session looks at the combination of targets, voice and choice for delivering education services in both developing and developed country settings.