School choice and paternalism

There is a very interesting report out from the Social Market Foundation that investigates the characteristics parents value in a school. The core result is that less-wealthy families do not choose schools on the basis of academic achievement:


This leads the SMF to express concern that school choice may not lift educational achievement because some parents do not consider it important. They then recommend Government intervention to promote the primacy of academic success. The line they’re treading between free choice and paternalism is a fine one. One the one hand, they want free school choice to improve the quality of schooling. On the other hand, they have a prescriptive view of what school quality means.

It is a difficult area because the parents cannot be assumed to be acting perfectly in the interests of their child. But, if we really think that the Government knows a child’s interests better than the parents then should we be promoting school choice as a mechanism for improvement? And if we want variation in schools to reflect the local community’s values then is it right to intervene when parents’ values are not the same as policy-makers’?

4 replies
  1. JC
    JC says:

    The answer depends on parental information. The mere fact that a school exists and has done so for many years is often good enough for parents when other factors within their ken are taken into the account.. things like close to home, other neighbour kids attend and the school advertises with circulars etc.

    To a degree parents take academic excellence for granted, afterall, it would be closed or there would be bad reports in the local paper if it were crook wouldn’t it?

    The other massive influence is the kids themselves.. they nearly always have their own preferences and expectations, and in the absence of a published terrible report(s) why would an average parent object?

    Last.. a public school is (relatively) free and is perceived to have a standard of education that’s at least average and indeed has its known academic and sports stars.. it probably takes a pretty non standard parent or child to go much past that perception and sacrifice to go elsewhere.


    • jamesz
      jamesz says:

      Yes, of course you’re right: the SMF’s analysis shows a child’s preferences to be the most important factor in determining where they go. Proximity is understandably important to parents, too.

      I suppose the thing it doesn’t explain is why academic reputation is valued differently by parents of different backgrounds. The SMF thinks its not just an information problem: the poor parents’ values are mistaken. I’m not convinced that we can distinguish between mistaken preferences (whatever they are) and preferences that merely differ from our own. It’s certainly not a question with an obviously right answer!

    • jamesz
      jamesz says:

      I don’t think they do that but I haven’t read the report closely enough to be sure. There’s a link in the post if you want to go into the details.

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