School Choice + Accountability: Does It Matter?

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Does school choice matter?

Parents have such strong preferences for quality [of school] and there is inconsistent evidence that schools casually improve academic outcomes (Burgess and Greaves, 2021).

As a school leader, having suffered at the hands of Ofsted inspections, I have developed a deep interest in school accountability, performance and teacher autonomy. Today, teacher agency – and what influences school success – heavily features in aspects of my doctoral research.

School Choice and AccountabilityIn a new (open access) 38-page research paper, School Choice and Accountability, published in September 2021 by Simon Burgess and Ellen Greaves, the authors present an overview of the quasi-market admissions process and the access for parents with children to ‘good’ schools.

A wide range of jurisdictions, evidence and reasons for and against accountability are presented, including covert and overt admissions procedures.

Accountability, defined as the “public provision of school performance” has two purposes: “providing incentives for schools, and information for parents and central authorities” and why “school choice multiplies the incentive effect of public accountability.”

Pondering on various perspectives…

Having just relocated from London – one of the largest school quasi-markets in the world – and now approaching the time where I have to consider which secondary school my own child will attend, working within the education sector, the discussion on admissions is an important decision for all parents.

It’s become a fascinating topic for me as a teacher, a school leader, a parent, a governor and as a growing academic. My perspective is clearly interested in all of these areas, but I have a particular interest in how teachers perform in ‘good’ or ‘not so good’ schools as determined by current accountability metrics. More specifically, do accountability structures (admissions, inspections, league tables etc.) make somebody a better or worse teacher? Do good teachers work in tougher schools? Do you weaker teachers work for better performing schools, with better students? And vice versa and so on…

It’s also worth noting that ‘as a teacher’ when choosing any school to work in, this doesn’t mean that your autonomy is guaranteed. Whilst the leadership, the demographics of the school, the physical building, its location and your curriculum decisions (plus so much more) are all key factors in the school’s success, the parents and pupils you serve also have a large say in the process.

“There are some ambiguous benefits of school choice. Centralising school choices is clearly welfare improving, but surprisingly not universally in place.”

Depending on your personal values, you may or may not wish to send your child to a specific school. I am still surprised to learn that some English local authorities do very little to integrate admissions across their communities. On the flipside, if many parents demand that their child attends a school where the vast majority of other (similar) children attend, you can see why schools become a representation of their local community rather than a utopia for society.

One size, or at least one utopia, will not be the best fit for everyone…

At least in England, and perhaps in many other countries but not so much in under-developed jurisdictions, “the trade-off is that parents cannot express the strength of their preferences in mechanisms currently used in practice.” For example, online applications, backhanders, having the knowledge, the time and the connections to put forward a stronger application, legal challenge etc.

I clearly benefit from the admissions process because of my social capital and my educational wisdom. Inspired by this research paper, does this wisdom and how I pursue the admissions process for my child increase teacher autonomy on the front line, school effectiveness and education accountability?

All of the above and more will have some impact on the school itself and how parent influence dictates accountability. I was particularly pleased to read that there is increasing evidence for an evaluation of the impact on longer run and non-academic outcomes, especially for elite schools “which suggest that parents have some information about the potential wider benefits to the schools.”

In England, the debate to abolish grammar schools, private schools (or remove tax benefits) and increase free schools are all part of the current discourse. It’s worth adding a note to this research before I conclude: That Progress 8 does not sufficiently communicate that the variation in school Progress 8 scores account for only around a tenth of the overall variation in pupil progress across England (Jerrim et al, 2021).


This paper approaches accountability from the perspective of “allocation of pupils to schools, and whether school choice and accountability improve pupil outcomes.” From what I can determine:

  1. Schools do have a casual impact on pupil attainment
  2. Accountability – public information about school performance – raises standards
  3. Competition induced by school choice has had a limited and positive effect on school performance
  4. There is growing evidence of parents do value school effectiveness
  5. The balance of evidence suggests that accountability should remain unless these costs outweigh the benefits. E.g. perverse incentives, teacher turnover.

I will need to read the paper more carefully to unpick how accountability manifests itself in England and how this compares to other parts of the world.

Further research is needed to determine the optimal design of school choice to meet policy objectives, for example reducing segregation and enhancing social mobility through more equal access to effective schools (Burgess and Greaves, 2021)

It’s worth mentioning that this research covers a wide variety of jurisdictions, not just schooling across England. There is an abundance of information and some surprising findings in this paper. I’ve only touched the surface in this blog post and with 14 pages of references, I would encourage you to read the paper in full.

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