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Measuring Markets: Project Introduction
Introduction A more in-depth discussion of some of the aims and approaches of the project. 
Broad aims 
The research and its context 
Research questions 
Research Team


Broad aims 
  • The purpose of this investigation is to employ new techniques to explore the impact of markets and choice policies in education. It will therefore contribute to an established body of knowledge on the relative effects for schools, and for parents and students, of legislation aimed at increasing choice and competition in the provision of educational services. 

  • The study is distinctive though in that it employs a socio-economic index to measure, over the period of a decade, the extent to which claims about markets creating socially stratified patterns of secondary school provision can be justified. It aims therefore to ‘measure markets’ and their socio-economic consequences for schools, parents, and students. 

  • Moreover, the research examines the relationship between changes to be wrought by markets, in terms of socio-economic consequences and their relative impact on school performance as measured by official indicators. It aims, then, at a robust exploration of many of the claims of the school effectiveness and improvement movement.


Reinventing the principles and organisation of the allocation of public services has been a recent feature of public policy in the UK, Australia, New Zealand, the USA and some nations in continental Europe and Scandinavia. Characteristic of these reforms is the creation of competition between and within public sector institutions, the advocacy of choice for newly constituted consumers of public services and the consequent manufacturing of client-provider relationships in the pursuit of efficiency gains in public service provision (Osborne and Gaebler 1993)

These themes are manifest in the interlocking policy initiatives of the 1988 Education Reform Act. The creation of markets in education, increasing parental choice, advancing the autonomy of educational institutions and the implementation of a per capita funding regime exemplify the features of the so-called ‘new public management’ (Ferlie et al. 1996). A decade on, what has the application of new public management techniques and values, in particular, marketisation yielded in education? What changes have been wrought on schools, their composition, their performance and their ‘effectiveness’? To what extent has the market forced distinctions between relatively good and poor schools? 

This investigation 

Against this background, the purpose of the research outlined in this proposal, which builds on an unfunded pilot study, has three main purposes - to: a) undertake a large scale study of the impact of policies based on market principles introduced by the 1988 Education Act on the socio-economic composition of schools, b) take forward the application of quantitative techniques in the evaluation of the impact of education policy, c) examine the extent to which changes wrought in the socio-economic composition of schools relates to school performance and school effectiveness as measured by 'official indicators'. The study is timely, since it is only now that the impact of the reforms can be fully judged, due to the nature of the ‘established market’ (see Technical Annex). 

This proposed research is distinctive in three respects: (i) the scale of the investigation contrasts with the local, case study and qualitatively based studies which have dominated the British studies of educational markets; (ii) its development of a robust comparator, of the kind which would enable us to track, over time, the stratifying effects of markets in comparison with the situation pre-1988; (iii) large scale data analysis aimed at linking market effects and evidence of relative school effectiveness and school improvement. This research will also be distinctive because the focus of the study is on the outcomes of a choice programme and not the process of choice itself. It will relate schools to the changes in wider social structure evidenced by the indicators which point to a rise in poverty in England and Wales since 1988 and an equivalent rise in the proportion of cases being taken to appeal in the school allocation process (Gorard 1998a), in ways which have not been attempted before. 

We see this research contributing to: wider debates in the fields of education, public administration and social policy, about the relative effects of markets on the scope and character of public service provision; the repertoire of techniques for the analysis of policy in education and in social science more generally; the rigorous evaluation of ‘official’ indicators of the efficiency and effectiveness employed by successive governments (in the form of league tables of outputs, target setting etc.). 


The research and its context

Our proposal has been constructed in response to an outpouring of research examining the operation of the limited market in schools from a number of perspectives (see for example Gorard 1997). Some writers have been primarily concerned to theorise the nature of a system of parental choice of schools (e.g. Le Grand and Bartlett 1993), others have wished to describe and analyse the micro-political process of choosing a new school (e.g. Gewirtz et al. 1995). Some have been concerned to find out which members of the family are involved in the process of choosing (e.g. David et al. 1995), while others have considered the implications for schools (e.g. James and Phillips 1995). Some writers have been avowedly in favour of the strengthening of market forces in the system of educational planning (e.g. Tooley 1994), but perhaps the majority of British research has emphasised the negative consequences of the policy (e.g. Glatter et al. 1997), with many observers simply taking the results for granted (e.g. Hatcher 1998). Some of the outcomes of this work are that the nature of limited markets is better understood, that the difficulties of choosing for some sections of the community have been emphasised, and that the criteria used to make choices have been well-rehearsed. 

At least by implication, post-1988 markets in education have been compared in this body of work with the status ante, which has been variously referred to as ‘state monopoly schooling’ (Chubb and Moe 1988) or ‘selection by mortgage’ (Hirsch 1997). For example, Waslander and Thrupp state that 'those endowed with material and cultural capital will simply add to their existing advantages through choice policies' (1995, p. 21). However, there has been no direct comparison of the extent to which social stratification, for example, which undoubtedly occurred under the catchment area system, has been transformed by the post-1988 market-led principle of educational provision. In principle it is possible for markets to have a clearly stratifying effect and for them still to lead to less segregation between schools than a pure catchment area system (see Technical Annex). What has been missing until now in British research has been larger scale studies, of the American kind, which sought to examine the impact of market forces across a large number of schools, although more recently, some studies have emerged that begin to address directly one or more of the theoretical justifications advanced for markets in education. (e.g. Levacic et al. 1998). It is our intention to bring to bear research methods which we believe address some of the lacunae, most notably in the scale of the research thus far undertaken, in the absence of longitudinal studies and in the perceived difficulties in the construction of reliable comparators. 

FSM as a contextual variable 

Free School Meals (FSM), which denotes the proportion of children eligible for meals without charge at school, is the chief comparator we intend to employ in this study (although several other indicators will also be used as available). This widely-used and easily-understood indicator of poverty has the added advantages of being an administrative measure (the most appropriate and convenient measure of disadvantage according to Rutter and Madge 1976) whose definition has not changed during the period of study (Smith and Noble 1995), and whose collection in Wales via the STATS1 forms has been consistent over the same time. We use FSM because (a) it is a widely used and understood instrument to measure the proportion of relatively socially disadvantaged children in a school or local education authority (b) longitudinal data sets are available (c) it is a flexible instrument which when used in combination with other indicators of socio-economic context and with educational outputs (e.g. performance in public examinations) can be used to explore the relative effectiveness of a variety of educational institutions and agencies. 

The use of FSM, as a proxy indicator of poverty and social disadvantage, has been long standing within ‘the political arithmetic’ tradition of social research. More recently however, we have employed a new derivative of this measure, the FSM segregation index, to investigate and report on the comparative performance of secondary schools in Wales and England, the effectiveness of state schools compared with their counterparts in the private sector, and to compare the outputs of Welsh-medium and English-medium schools. These studies give weight to the previously established strong link between the socio-economic characteristics of school intakes and later public examination results, but have also challenged other orthodoxies, and have, therefore, received considerable publicity locally and nationally (being well-received by local LEAs and the schools themselves, e.g. Gorard 1998b). The FSM segregation index, then, has proved to be a remarkably flexible and useful measure (see Technical Annex). 



Research questions

In response to existing research and building on databases we have already started to create in respect of Wales and England, both at national level and at the level of the individual LEA (and school districts in some cases) the research will address the following specific questions: 

Small scale local case study research, has, hitherto, suggested that there is evidence that markets have given rise to between-school segregation, as measured by differences in the social composition of schools. In light of this and on a broader time scale and across national data sets: To what extent are schools more or less stratified in terms of social class composition (and related indicators) since the Education Reform Act 1988? What are the differences in the social composition of schools in different sectors such as grant-maintained (GM) schools, and voluntary schools? 

Central to our research is a cross-national (Wales-England) identification and comparison of variations in the changes in between-school segregation. There are well documented institutional differences in educational provision across the two countries and, it has been argued, significant variation in the application and adoption of market principles cross-nationally. It can also be argued that there are significant regional variations between local markets in within each country. To what extent do national, regional and district variations in the implementation of local markets relate to patterns of and changes in between-school segregation. Specifically, to what extent does the LEA have an impact on the formation of local markets and their subsequent effects on the social composition of schools?  

It was intended that competition between schools would improve school performance, as measured for example by the proportions of students obtaining GCSE grades A*-C. There is some evidence though, that better outputs have been achieved by individual schools via changes in their admissions policies. In other words, claims of a link between competition and school effectiveness and efficiency may have been masked by manufactured changes in intakes. Is it possible to decide whether schools are generally becoming more or less effective in terms of examination performance since the Education Reform Act 1988? What is the relationship between school effects and changes in social composition? 

Cardiff School of Social Sciences 
Maintained by Chris Taylor
Last update: February 2000


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