In the last 15 years, the UK has spent £550 billion running and improving its secondary schools. During this time, our research shows, it has closed 1,500 schools (35%) and opened 1,900 new ones. But little has changed. A third of English students still graduate with less than five GCSEs, reducing their projected lifetime earnings by £140,000. More worryingly, the number of schools where no students graduate with five GCSEs has doubled, as other schools use them as dumping grounds to improve their own results.
The current strategy seems to be increasing bad practice, rather than creating good. Why is this? Perhaps the issue is not how much is being spent, but who it is being given to. Maybe, rather than trying to improve its worst schools, the UK should encourage its best ones to grow. They already have the right leadership, culture and capability in place. Why not get them to do more? Why not challenge them to teach our most deprived students, as well as our most affluent ones?
If England had increased the size of its best schools by 10% each year in the last 15 years, then 10% more students would have graduated with five GCSEs last year. If it continued with this strategy, then it would be the highest performing OECD country in 25 years, our research shows. With an estimated £12 billion to £25 billion increase in UK gross domestic product along the way.
The current strategy isn’t working – it’s time for a new one.
In 2001, the economist Ralph Harris told an interviewer, “We have had a century of compulsory, universal state-provided education. There is a 20% adult illiteracy rate, half of the children are below their reading age, the reading skill they should have reached at that age. State education is one of the most terrible flawed failed industries or services in the whole of this nation. There is no way that a private education company could have gone on for a hundred years with a worsening output with every sign of failure, and gone on being funded and funded. Yet state education can do that.”
Things have not improved since. The results of the PISA educational tests for science, reading and mathematics amongst 15-year-olds, published by the OECD in December 2016, make for painful reading. They show that Britain falls far short of the best performing nations, such as Singapore, Denmark and Finland; worse still, we lag behind much poorer countries, such as Vietnam, Poland and Estonia. In maths, Britain is ranked 27th out of more than 70 countries, its worst performance since the turn of the century; in reading, we are placed 22nd, having dropped out of the top 20 over 10 years ago; only in science have we marginally improved our position, in spite of lower absolute scores.
The irony is that Britain has a disproportionately large share of the finest schools in the world. Our best schools are a magnet for parents throughout the world who seek the finest education for their children. As a country, we are almost unique in treating secondary education as a precious export market. The problem seems to be that we cannot emulate our own success on a national scale.
The gap between our best and worst schools seems as unbridgeable as ever. According to the same PISA tests, by the time British children leave school, the top 10% are nine years ahead of the bottom 10% in science, and eight years ahead in mathematics. 47% of children leave school without five good GCSEs. If there were a Gini coefficient for educational inequality, Britain would win the gold medal. Fewer than 7% of our schools produce over half of all successful Oxbridge applications.
If education were a competitive market, our best schools would have put our worst schools out of business a long time ago. Competitive pressure and parental choice would have guaranteed an ever-increasing quality of educational provision as the best schools systematically replaced the worst. However, in Britain, we do the opposite of what a competitive market would do. We concentrate our improvement efforts on our worst performing schools. We place them in special measures and parachute in “superheads” to transform their fortunes. In short, we invest disproportionately in failing schools in the hope that they can be turned around.
Those who pay the price of this flawed policy are, inevitably, the poorest third of the population. Surely, a wiser solution would be to encourage our better schools to grow.
Drawing upon the Pareto principle, it is more fruitful to build on the successes of the best 20% than try and reverse the fortunes of the worst 80%. As Richard Koch wrote in his bestselling business book: “Exploit 80/20. Whenever you can, move resources from 80% activities to 20% activities. The profit from this is enormous because it is highly leveraged arbitrage. You use what is not very valuable to make something that is enormously valuable, winning at both ends of the exchange.”
Applying this logic to education: What if we encouraged the best schools to replace the worst ones? If the best 3,000 schools in the UK (roughly one-eighth of the total) set up another 3,000 schools every five years, then every school would be delivering a top quality education (in the top 20% of today’s schools) within 15 years.
Take, for example, Winchester College. It currently has nearly 700 pupils. Adding the same number every five years would mean that by 2035 it would be educating nearly 3,000 pupils on four or five campuses. If this could be achieved without compromising its standards, then it would have replaced the same number of poorly performing schools. If Britain’s best 3,000 schools were to do the same, then in five years they would have driven out of business most of the schools currently in special measures and at least another 10,000 schools by 2030.
The main beneficiaries of such a scheme would be those who are currently disadvantaged. The poor suffer disproportionately from a variable, sub-standard, public service.