The new Education Secretary should use free market reforms to save British education

Reem Ibrahim

July 8, 2022

In light of the resignation of Rishi Sunak, promotion of Nadhim Zahawi to the role of Chancellor, and subsequent appointment and resignation of Michelle Donelan as Education Secretary, it has finally been confirmed that James Cleverly will be the new Education Secretary.

Cleverly is now the third Education Secretary this week, exacerbating the instability of the future of education. He must now oversee the management of numerous challenges. However, should Cleverly implement free market reforms to the UK education system, many of the current problems would be alleviated. 

With the covid catch-up, mounting funding pressures, and teacher shortages, it is safe to say that Mr Cleverly will have a lot on his plate. He seems to have acknowledged this fact, stating that he has a “huge amount of work to do”. Commenting on his new role, Cleverly said: 

“As someone whose grandfather was a teacher and whose children are currently in the education system, I am incredibly passionate about education and proud to be appointed secretary of state”.

But what are the solutions to Britain’s educational problems? School choice.

Ultimately, parents know better than government officials. The new Education Secretary seems to embrace this fact. Previously, he has defended sending his own children to private schools, stating that he would not “play politics with the future life chances” of his children. No good parent would.

In Milton Friedman’s “Capitalism and Freedom”, he argues for school choice. Trialled across some states in the US, this has resulted in the freedom to choose what schools children attend. Parents receive funds to use towards the cost of education, and are free to make decisions based on their child’s specific needs. The government allocates vouchers to families, and are able to top-up these vouchers if they are financially able to, allowing them the freedom to choose how their child is educated, whilst also ensuring that no child goes without an education.

The introduction of school choice would support specialised education, meaning that learning is tailored to their specific needs. The impact of the pandemic on education must not be understated- SATs results released this week reveal that only 59% of pupils met the expected level, down from 65% in 2019. School choice would ultimately see an improvement in the quality of education, as well as its specialisation, targeting the needs of students left behind by the pandemic.

Schools in the UK are being hit by rising costs, and the pressure is on to ensure that students do not feel that their education is impacted. Adopting a free market education system would widen funding opportunities for schools.

Taking the example of Florida’s tax-credit scholarship program, corporate donors are able to receive credits for their contributions to scholarships. These scholarship funding organisations allow for more low-income families to attend private schools. 107,095 Florida students received scholarships in the 2017-18 academic year. In Florida, there are no mandated open-enrollment policies, imposed price controls, or requirement for the schools to be accredited. Not a single test is mandated. Florida’s success demonstrates that the free market improves access to education, and that regulations intended to equalise are unnecessary, and restrict funding opportunities. 

The UK’s unnecessary regulations on the sources of education funding directly restricts the opportunities available to students. James Cleverly should liberalise the funding opportunities available to schools in order to alleviate the financial pressures on Britain’s state schools.

Furthermore, free market solutions would alleviate the national staffing issue, as well as lead to higher teacher salaries. In the UK, a survey of 766 state-sector school and college head teachers found that 95% were experiencing difficulties when recruiting staff, whilst 43% said that the problem was severe. The Conservative Party 2019 manifesto pledged to raise teacher starting salaries to £30,000, and as education secretary, Zahawi recommended a 5% pay rise over two years for senior teachers. Unions have already said that a 5% proposal for more experienced teachers is “unacceptable”. We shouldn’t be surprised that teachers are not satisfied with their rate of pay. Evidence suggests that school choice leads to higher salaries for public school teachers, and by extension, increases the number of people who choose teaching as a career.

Not only does school choice provide families with more options, expanding competition among education providers, but it also provides teachers with a higher number of employment options. Schools must compete with one another in order to retain talent, driving up salaries and working conditions. Evidence suggests that competition between schools leads to higher salaries. A peer reviewed study published in the Journal of Public Economics finds that in North Carolina, nearby charter school competition increases teaching salaries by about 3.4% for educators in difficult-to-staff public schools. The introduction of school choice in the UK would have positive effects on teaching salaries, preventing further teaching strikes. It is certainly a course of action that Cleverly should consider.

Freedom works, and that includes education. James Cleverly should seek to expand choice and competition in order to hand parents the power to demand what works for their children. School choice improves education outcomes, and increases teaching salaries. As the government seeks to reinvent themselves following the Johnson saga, a new course of action in education is very possible.


  • Reem Ibrahim

    Reem Ibrahim is an undergraduate student at the London School of Economics and an Intern at the Institute of Economic Affairs. Twitter: @reemamiribrahim

Written by Reem Ibrahim

Reem Ibrahim is an undergraduate student at the London School of Economics and an Intern at the Institute of Economic Affairs. Twitter: @reemamiribrahim

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