National Offers Day – Why School Choice Matters

Our Campaign Manager Mike Burke has written this blog:

Today is National Offers Day, where parents and pupils around the country find out what school their child will be attending in September. Having worked with several different heads and parents, I know that this day will always produce mixed emotions; it’s great to hear of so many happy families, but there are always a disappointed few.

But that tension within the system is a good thing. Obviously we want to get to a stage where all schools provide a strong, broad and balanced education, enhancing the life chances of all that walk through their doors – but it’s going to take a lot to get there, and I think encouraging school choice for parents is the way to do it.

It is not a market, and parents are not consumers, but the principle of good schools attracting more parents, thus encouraging others to follow their lead or the schools themselves to expand, is the quickest, most efficient and most effective way to ensure as many good places as possible. So much of what the best schools do to provide a great education – robust behaviour systems, knowledge-led curricula, encouraging participation in extra-curriculars – is either cost-neutral or already possible in the vast majority of schools.

But some parents won’t like that offer. Some will prefer schools that focus on ‘transferable skills’, and project-based learning that eschews traditional subjects. And that’s great – our system lets them find and apply for whatever kind of school they believe their child will thrive in. The system of school choice allows best practice to stand out and spread quickly, but it also gives parents the freedom to pursue the kind of education they want for their child.

We are very much in the process of improving our school system (and have been ever since it was created), and I believe that it is improving at a faster rate than ever before. Government reforms since 2010 have given schools the freedom to improve their offering to pupils and to do so in part by quickly finding success stories elsewhere. Great schools and trusts like Dixons Trinity Academy, Reach Academy Feltham and The Inspiration Trust are proving to be beacons of teaching and learning despite being hundreds of miles away from one another, and others are taking their blueprint and tweaking it for their own context, before offering it to parents and pupils who can then make their choice.

There are many people out there who would want to remove school choice altogether. They think that kids should go to their local school, regardless of its quality or parental views, and that these schools should be accountable to a local authority that has probably been run by the same party for 50 years – a toxic recipe for stagnation and lower standards.

I’m not saying schools should be desperately trying to recruit every pupil on their roll; just that parents should be allowed to vote with their feet, and that schools should therefore be mindful of the communities they serve and the priorities those communities have (and, of course, the vast majority of schools already are). This is the system we have now, and it works.

So, yes, National Offers Day can be stressful and frustrating on both sides of the school gates. Not everyone gets into the school they want, and that’s a real shame. But it’s an integral part of a system that I firmly believe is driving up standards and improving life chances for children up and down the country, and hopefully we will soon be in a place where everyone can go to the type of school they want.