NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Thatcher's School Choice Policy

January 11, 2000

The consensus in left-wing British education circles is that the school choice policies introduced under former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1988 have exacerbated social and educational inequality. Based on "qualitative" studies -- which are not random and only focus on a few schools -- they claim better-off students are chosen by better schools, forcing less well-off students into "sink" schools of declining quality.

The consensus is wrong, say Stephen Gorard and John Fitz, of the University of Wales, Cardiff.

Thatcher's policy introduced parental choice into the school system in an attempt to curb unfair "selection by residence" -- the fact that wealthier parents can choose better schools by moving into better-off districts.

Gorard and Fitz analyzed the available data from all the schools in England and Wales -- encompassing 8 million students in 23,000 schools over a ten-year period. To their surprise, they found:

  • Instead of the predicted gap between schools on measures of social disadvantage increasing since 1988, they found segregation declining significantly in every region, at both primary and secondary school levels.
  • Furthermore, this overall decrease in socioeconomic segregation is not achieved at the expense of some particular schools: even the most disadvantaged schools are improving.
  • Additionally, the most disadvantaged students within the schools themselves improve more quickly, albeit from a very low base, than those who are more advantaged.

Source: James Tooley, "Parental Choice and Inequality" Economic Affairs, December 1999, Institute of Economic Affairs, 2 Lord North Street London SW1P 3LB, (0171) 799-3745.


Browse more articles on International Issues