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The blob is wrong: competition and independence raise school standards

The blob is wrong: competition and independence raise school standards

The A-Level results released last week confirm the dominance of schools in London and the South East. Provisional league tables have only appeared so far for state schools, but these two regions have two-thirds of the top 100. South Yorkshire, Tyne and Wear, and Wales did not have a single school between them in the top 100.

State schools in London and the South have many of their potentially brightest pupils creamed off by high-powered public schools. Yet they consistently produce much better results than their counterparts elsewhere in the country.

An article in the latest issue of the American Economic Association’s top Journal of Economic Perspectives sheds light on this persistent regional discrepancy in school performance. The paper, by Ludger Woessmann of Munich University, is an in-depth, meticulous statistical analysis of differences in the average achievement levels of school students in different countries across the world. There are of course formidable conceptual issues in comparing performances in, say, Ghana and Germany. But building on the pioneering work of the OECD and its Programme for International Student Assessment, the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement has made great progress in dealing with them.

An advantage of using such a disparate data set is precisely that there are large variations in both inputs and outputs in different countries. This means that, somewhat paradoxically, provided that the right analytical framework is used, the variability makes it easier to identify exactly what factors are important in determining outcomes. Even within the developed world, substantial differences exist. So we can usefully learn some lessons for inside the UK from Woessmann’s work.

The analysis confirms that resource inputs such as expenditure per student or class size appear to have limited effects on student achievement. Spending more money in itself is a very inefficient way of improving outcomes. This has been clear in general across the public sector as a whole since Gordon Brown’s experiments with massive increases in public spending.

Interestingly, “competition from privately operated schools positively affects achievement levels”. This implies that the strength of state schools in the South is in part due to the fact that they have to compete to attract good pupils. It is no coincidence that there is a cluster of very good state schools in South Manchester/North Cheshire, because Manchester, unlike anywhere else in the North, has a number of excellent private schools.

Given current debates here about devolving power within the educational system, Woessmann reports that school autonomy has positive effects on performance.

Finally, the values and attitudes of teachers and management matter. King David, a state school in an insalubrious part of North Manchester, promotes “traditional Jewish values of respect, self-discipline and the pursuit of excellence”. It came forty-ninth in the national tables.

Michael Gove described the UK educational establishment as “the blob”. The opinions and values of the blob are contradicted almost in their entirety by the scientific evidence. Competition, both within and between schools, and autonomy are key determinants of success.

Paul Ormerod

As published in City AM on Tuesday 23rd August

Image: Sports Day by Alex Lecea licensed under CC BY 2.0

1 Comment
  1. A very tardy comment (or observation). Figure 2 in the paper shows the long-run trends in test scores for selected OECD countries. Looking it the graph, it strikes me that there seems to be little or no correlation between test scores and levels / trends of GDP per capita. What evidence is there on the link between school standards and economic performance ? Does an improvement in TIMSS / PISA scores make any noticeable difference to GDP 10, 20, 30 years on ?

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