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School Choice and the Quasi-market
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Oxford Studies in Comparative Education

School Choice and the Quasi-market


1996 paperback 144 pages, £30.00, ISBN 978-1-873927-23-6

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About the book

Throughout much of the industralised world in the 1980s and 1990s governments divested themselves of responsibility for providing services for their citizens and espoused the ideology of the market. In education the term ‘quasi-market’ has been used to describe the situation where the market forces introduced into schooling differ in some fundamental respects from classical free markets.

This book brings together specially written accounts of developments in the quasi-market in nine countries. The authors were asked to focus on their own particular country and to review policy developments in school choice over the previous five to ten years. In addition they were asked to assess the research evidence on the workings of the quasi-market of schools and, in particular, the effects of such changes on children of different genders and from differing social class and ethnic backgrounds. The result is a series of thought-provoking articles that add greatly to our understanding of the pressures that led to quasi-markets in education, and of how particular countries have responded to such changes and to the potentially inequitable effects of such moves.



Geoffrey Walford. School Choice and the Quasi-market

Sjoerd Karsten & Christine Teelken. School Choice in the Netherlands

Gary Miron. School Choice and the Quasi-market in Swedish Education

Geoffrey Walford. School Choice and the Quasi-market in England and Wales

Agnès van Zanten. Market Trends in the French School System: overt policy, hidden strategies, actual changes

Manfred Weiss & Brigitte Steinert. Germany: competitive inequality in educational quasi-markets

Peter W. Cookson, Jr. School Choice in the United States: progressive individualism, educational deregulation, and the public good

Simon Marginson. Marketisation in Australian Schooling

Liz Gordon. School Choice and the Quasi-market in New Zealand: ‘Tomorrow’s Schools’ today


Throughout much of the industrialised world the 1980s saw governments divesting themselves of responsibility for designing, organising and providing services for their citizens. In country after country, the ideology of the market swept away ideas of rational planning, and massive privatisation programmes of state-owned manufacturing and service organisations have resulted. It is argued that greater use of market mechanisms not only helps to solve economic problems, but also contributes to the well-being of the population by allowing individuals greater freedom and control over their own lives. The market, it is argued, encourages the qualities of independence, self-reliance and self-respect which had been corroded by the workings of an all-powerful, interfering state. Moreover, the ‘discipline of the market’ is said to ensure that only high quality provision survives. Competition between suppliers is believed to raise the quality of products from all suppliers, and ensure that customers get good ‘value for money’.

It was almost inevitable that such market thinking would be extended to the provision of schooling, and the 1980s and 1990s have seen many different countries radically reorganise their state-maintained schooling systems. This has often been accompanied by greater financial and ideological support for the private sector and a greater blurring of the distinction between private and state-maintained schooling. All schools have been pushed into a situation more resembling the competitive market. The official aims have usually been couched in terms of increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of schooling by introducing competition between schools. But in many cases the call for greater efficiency has actually masked declining government funding for schools and a resultant partial privatisation of the educational system. This has frequently led to greater inequalities between schools, and greater inequities in the educational experiences of children from different genders, social classes and ethnicities.

The extension of market ideas into education has not been without criticism, and there has been considerable debate about the effects and desirability of such moves. Many critics believe that education should be viewed as a public good and that it is a grave error to treat the provision of schooling as a marketable commodity (e.g. Wringe, 1994). In practice, all market-oriented schemes so far introduced have accepted this argument to some degree. The nature of the market introduced into education is not identical to that found in manufacturing or even in major service industries. It is generally recognised that the schooling of a society’s young holds benefits for the individual, the family and the society itself, and all Western societies have legislated to ensure that children receive some education whether or not the family or child wishes.

The term ‘quasi-market’ (Le Grand, 1991; Glennerster, 1991; Le Grand & Bartlett, 1993) has been often used to describe the current situation. It indicates that the market forces introduced into schooling differ in some fundamental aspects from classical free markets both in respect of the demand and supply side. One essential difference is that money need not change hands between the ‘purchaser’ and the ‘supplier’. A second, is that society forces all families to make some sort of purchase from what is already on offer, or convince those with power to enforce that the family is providing a similar ‘product’ itself. On the supply side, the institutions providing schooling are not necessarily privately owned or have profit maximization as their main objective. Further, entry of new suppliers is regulated and subject to strict controls. Consumers do not have the freedom to choose any product, but only products that have been deemed to meet relatively strongly defined and inspected criteria. On the demand side, the purchaser is not necessarily the ‘consumer’ of what schools offer and this particular quasi-market may be conceptualised in terms of a diversity of purchasers and consumers. More fundamentally, children realistically only have one chance of receiving basic schooling. If the wrong choice is made, the personal costs of changing schools are high. Moreover, the market forces introduced into schooling differ from those of the classical market in that the act of choosing can directly transform the product. Market forces in schooling lead to some schools becoming full while others are empty – a choice for a small school is made invalid if it expands to meet the demand (Carroll & Walford, 1996).

While the market for schools is actually a quasi-market, some of its effects may equal those of the classical market. In particular, differences between schools can develop, such that those families that value education begin to see schools within a local hierarchy of desirability. Those at the top of that hierarchy become highly popular for both families and teachers. As they are likely to become oversubscribed, they are thus able to select children and families rather than families choosing schools. As the article by Liz Gordon makes clear, New Zealand’s virtual abolition of its educational system, as such, has led to a competitive jungle of autonomous suppliers of schooling. The result has been a deepening of the polarisations already evident in New Zealand society, as those families with cultural and financial capital fight to ensure that their offspring attend the schools perceived to be the ‘best’. At the other extreme, some families find themselves locked into suppliers that are gradually facing going out of business. Some schools close as the result of families choosing not to use them, but the closure is rarely swift or efficient. The children within those schools often suffer years of staff demoralisation and declining quality of facilities provided. The quasi-market of schools is potentially not just hard on suppliers, but can directly effect those families and children who have been unlucky enough to have made an inappropriate purchase. There is no ‘money back guarantee’ with schooling.

While there are general trends that can be perceived in numerous Western countries, each system has responded to the push for greater market forces in a different way. To begin to understand the results of such changes, they need to be examined within their own particular socio-economic and historic context. When different countries are studied in detail considerable differences are found in, for example, the degree of regulation of the market, the extent of incorporation of the private sector, and the relationships between choice and competition. These can be related to the variety of different purposes that governments saw for such developments and the degree to which collective responsibility for public education is accepted. Once individual countries are examined sweeping generalizations about market changes need to be hedged by caveats. But the examination of such differences allows a far deeper understanding of the complexity of responses.

This issue of Oxford Studies in Comparative Education brings together accounts of developments in the quasi-market of schools in nine different countries. They are all specially written by scholars who have substantial experience of researching the effects of these changes. These authors were asked to focus on their own particular country and to review policy developments in school choice over the last five to ten years. In addition to this general review, authors were asked to assess the research evidence on the workings of the ‘quasi-market’ of schools and, in particular, the effects of such changes on children of different genders and from differing social class and ethnic backgrounds. The intention was also that it would be possible to cover some of the other related issues such as: the nature of the choice-making process; the relationship between parent/child choice and selection by schools; the connection between school choice programmes and broader government policy; the nature of resistance and contestation of policies; and the possible longer-term effects of the changes on education and schooling. It was recognised that the precise issues to be covered would depend on the country under consideration.

The scholars invited to contribute to this issue have responded to the challenge and have produced as series of new and thought-provoking articles. Together, they add greatly to our understanding of the pressures that led to quasi-markets in education, and of how particular countries have responded to such changes and to the potentially inequitable effects of such moves.

The Articles The collection starts by considering two northern European countries which, in very different ways have been the focus of debate on school choice and the quasi-market. The Netherlands is an example where, for many decades, parents or other groups have been able to establish new schools relatively easily, and families have been able to use a school of their choice for their children. The article by Karsten & Teelken examines the accuracy of this picture. They show that the principle that parents should be given the opportunity to organise and choose the kind of education they want for their children has long been central to the Dutch education system. It was the result of an extended campaign which spanned the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1848 freedom of education was established by the Constitution, such that parents and others had the right to found schools, organise them and to determine the religious and other convictions on which they are based. These rights were realised in a material sense through the historic compromise which is known as the Pacification of 1917, after which private schools were supported by the state on an equal financial footing to state schools. This accounts for the present wide variety of (mainly denominational) schools, and the fact that the Netherlands now has a majority of schools that are private and run by independent boards.

The ease with which various groups could establish their own schools in the Netherlands has often been used as a reference point for both positive and negative arguments about choice elsewhere in the world – ‘often with little factual basis’ as Glenn (1989) pointed out. The problem with using the Dutch model in this way is that often little or no attention is paid to the specific socio-cultural setting that keeps the country’s unique education policies in place (Walford, 1995). Even more important, it neglects the question as to whether the solution arrived at in the Dutch situation of 1917 is still appropriate in a contemporary context. Karsten & Teelken describe the relations which have developed historically, and the way the system of free school choice actually operates. They also indicate some of the present problems within the system and discuss some contemporary issues.

Gary Miron considers the contrasting case of Sweden. Long known for its emphasis on political consensus, central planning, and egalitarianism, Sweden has seen dramatic changes in the last decade. Within education, moves towards greater diversity were made in the late 1980s, but 1992 saw a ‘free choice revolution’ that required municipalities to distribute resources to both public and private schools based upon the specific needs of each school. Through a voucher system the municipalities were required to fund at least 85 per cent of the costs of average per-student cost in a state school for each student enrolled in approved private schools. This degree of public support for the private sector is one of the highest in the world. Miron traces the political and economic factors that led to these changes and documents the resulting growth of the private sector in Sweden over the 1990s. He then examines the types of school that families are choosing and the reasons that they give for their decisions. It is shown that, while Montessori schools have shown the greatest increase among the various private schools, religious schools have also rapidly increased and now account for around 16 per cent of enrolments in private schools.

One of the results of recent changes in Sweden is that concern has arisen about segregation by ethnic grouping, social class and ability level. While it is still too early in the reforms to have definitive evidence, within the larger urban areas there are indications of growing segregation and disparities between schools. One particular concern is that private schools are able to use high fees or entry tests to select a rather homogeneous group, while municipal schools are obliged to accept all children. In Stockholm and its surrounding municipalities children of Swedish origin are moving from schools which have a large number of immigrant children, while children of well-educated immigrants are starting to move from schools predominantly containing immigrants. These are just some of the negative consequences of recent changes, but Miron clarifies that the developments in choice have been accompanied by budget cuts and argues that many of the negative consequences are not necessarily due to school choice and the use of vouchers. Moreover, it is evident that the reforms have led to increased efficiency in municipal schools, and that the balance between efficiency, effectiveness and equity is not easily assessed.

In the next article Geoffrey Walford describes the introduction of a quasi-market for schools into England and Wales that occurred during the mid 1980s, and early 1990s. He traces how the concept of choice developed since the 1944 Education Act, and shows how it has been used to justify a range of changes within both the private and state-maintained sectors of schooling. He pays particular attention to the City Technology College policy which, although small and generally deemed to have failed, can be seen as the forerunner of greater changes in the late 1980s. These later changes allowed state-maintained schools to ‘opt out’ of the control of their local education authority and become grant maintained, and introduced local management of schools which, coupled with open enrolment and budgets based on pupil numbers, led to the possibility of a highly competitive and inequitable system. This possibility was amplified through further legislative changes in the early 1990s.

Walford reviews the research evidence on the workings of the new quasi-market system, paying particular attention to the research on how families choose particular schools and on the growing inequalities between schools. He argues that competition between schools is leading to a hierarchy of differentially supported schools which are beginning to serve particular social and cultural groups. While some children now find themselves in well-equipped and staffed schools, others are faced with a depressing environment and with poor facilities and little external support. The comprehensive system is being replaced by a variety of schools with new forms of selection. Moreover, the new criteria are less clear or equitable than those used to select children for grammar or secondary modern schools within the discredited bipartite system that preceded comprehensive reform.

The article by Agnès van Zanten shows that, within France, the private sector is a major consideration. The private sector is subsidized by the state and schools about fifteen per cent of the relevant population. Although largely nominally Catholic, many private schools play down their religious orientation and the sector thus offers schools with a diversity of ethos and educational styles. The broadly comprehensive system that gradually developed after the Second World War was subject to growing criticism and a form of limited school choice was implemented in the mid 1980s. About a half of all secondary schools are now part of a decentralization scheme where parents can choose schools from within wider catchment areas, and parents now have a greatly increased influence on their children’s school careers.

Van Zanten examines the elements of the ideologies held by French parents about schooling, and describes the ways in which increased choice intervenes in this specific ideological configuration. Although the extent of choice remains modest compared with other countries, she shows that there is considerable variation between social classes, with the middle-class benefiting most from recent changes. Van Zanten argues that the ideal of the common school is being replaced by the ideal of the ‘patterned’ school geared towards the satisfaction of particular customers. She speculates about the possible effects of further marketization in French education, focusing, in particular, on the effects of increased segregation between different ethnic groups.

A detailed account of the characteristics of the quasi-market in Germany is given by Weiss & Steinert in the following article. It is shown that differentiation and hierarchy have long been a characteristic of German secondary schooling, but it is argued that the educational quasi-market mainly operates only in cities and urban conurbations. They document regional, gender, ethnic and social differences in educational participation and qualifications gained, and argue that recent changes may amplify these inequities. In particular, parents have recently been given greater freedom of choice. Traditionally, the authority to decide what type of secondary school their child attends legally rested with the parents, but, in practice, the recommendation of the primary school teacher has always played a major role in the parents’ decision. Additionally, until recently, specific achievement requirements (an examination or a trial period of instruction) were necessary if – contrary to the primary school recommendation – parents wanted their child to attend a school leading to university entrance qualification (Abitur). A number of Länder have now revoked this requirement, thus giving parents the full authority over their child’s school career, potentially leading to greater inequalities.

The development and effects of increased school choice in the United States is the subject of the article by Peter Cookson Jr. There, a diversity of school choice schemes have been introduced which range from vouchers which fund part of private school fees, to charter schools, and to wholesale privatisation of schools. First, Cookson outlines the current variety of schemes in action or planned and gives a summary of public opinion on school choice. Second, he provides an historical and theoretical framework for understanding why the deregulation and commercialization of public education has an appeal to so many policy-makers, politicians, and other agents of symbolic control. Next, there is an examination of the major choice plans in the United States that rely on market principles of organization, and a review of the most recent empirical evidence about the relationship of market reforms to student achievement. Finally, Cookson argues that market solutions to educational problems misdefine the purpose of education in a democracy, and warns that the dangers of mistaking the public good with the economic welfare of the already privileged, if not corrected, could destroy democratically controlled education.

In his article on Australia, Simon Marginson first describes the dual system of state and private schools. The private schools currently enrol nearly 30 per cent of all students, are heavily subsidised by government and enjoy strong community support. This has normalised markets in schooling, despite their limited capacity to provide for unfettered choice. Since the late 1980s, quasi-markets have been created in each of Australia’s eight State and Territory systems of government schooling. The most profound changes have occurred in Victoria. Here the changes were preceded by dramatic cuts in expenditure, with 230 schools being closed and 8200 teaching positions being abolished. Over 500 special teaching positions allocated to schools experiencing socio-economic disadvantage were abolished, resources were switched from non-Anglo communities to middle-class white districts, and class size rose rapidly. These cuts and redistribution of expenditure were followed by a new reformed system characterised by devolution, competition, strong central controls and a growing reliance on fund-raising, commercial sponsorship and fees. Marginson argues that the changes have been so drastic that free education has almost disappeared.

There is growing evidence of a marked increase in the proportion of funding obtained from fees and commercial sponsorship. As might be expected, the capacity for schools to raise such income is differentiated along socio-economic lines, and resource inequalities between schools in different socio-economic zones are growing. Marginson argues that schools in Australia are now segmented between two kinds of schools. First, there are those that are exclusive to varying degrees, which include most private schools and some oversubscribed government schools. Second, there are those schools that are freely accessible to parental choice, and thus condemned to inferiority in their social standing and educational resources.

A very similar situation is reported by Liz Gordon in her article on the quasi-market in New Zealand. What was once one of the most centralised and social democratic systems of education in the world has recently been swept away. A system based on full comprehensive education, where it was assumed that, wherever people lived, they would have access to a school offering the same range of opportunities as any other school, was replaced in 1989. The Department of Education and all regional bodies were abolished. In their place was put a small, policy-focused ministry plus four stand alone agencies covering accountability, qualifications and assessment, special education and training. Each school was given a Board of Trustees and highly devolved powers and responsibilities. This policy was originally seen as having elements of ‘community empowerment’ as well as those of the market and privatisation; however, in the seven years since implementation it has become clear that the emphasis on the market has predominated.

Gordon shows that the market is underpinned by a particular conception of choice that emphasises ‘exit’ rather than ‘voice’. Schools are funded almost entirely on the basis of student numbers, and so the primary driving force for schools in the quasi-market is maintaining and improving student numbers. She reviews the evidence and indicates that a key feature of the operation of the quasi-market in schools has been a polarisation in the market popularity of schools that is based on, but reinforces, growing societal trends in inequality between various social groups. Whilst the School Boards in the wealthy areas are able to attract highly experienced and skilled members, and to draw upon the cultural and financial capital of the neighbourhood for support, schools in poor areas had far less chance of being able to obtain such assistance. Further evidence shows that the patterns of school choice are directly related to the class and ethnic character of the area in which schools are located – leading to increased polarisation of populations, resources and positionings of schools.

The picture presented by Liz Gordon is similar to that given in many of the preceding articles. While the stated aim of school reform was frequently voiced in terms of improving the quality of education in all schools in the sate sector, there is little evidence that this is happening. Indeed, there is little evidence that competition could translate into school improvement. In contrast, there is growing evidence that the quasi-market of schools is leading to greater inequity between schools, and greater polarisation between various social and ethnic groups within each society. In many cases the quasi-market appears to be masking a desire to reduce public expenditure on schooling and introduce a process of gradual privatisation. If such a desire is allowed to come to fruition, the effects on those societies could be incalculable.


Carroll, S. & Walford, G. (1996) Parents’ responses to the school quasi-market, Research Papers in Education, (forthcoming).

Glenn, C.L. (1989) Choice of Schools in Six Nations. Washington: US Government Printing Office.

Glennerster, H. (1991) Quasi-markets and education, Economic Journal, 101, pp. 1268-1271.

Le Grand, J. (1991) Quasi-markets and social policy, Economic Journal, 101, pp. 1256-1267.

Le Grand, J. & Bartlett, W. (1993) Quasi-markets and Social Policy. London: Macmillan.

Walford, G. (1995) Faith-based grant-maintained schools: selective international borrowing from the Netherlands, Journal of Educational Policy, 10, pp. 245-257.

Wringe, C. (1994) Markets, values and education, in D. Bridges & T.H. McLaughlin (Eds) Education and the Market Place. London: Falmer.


Peter W. Cookson, Jr, is Director of Educational Outreach and Extension, Teachers College Columbia University. He is the author of many journal articles and has written or edited nine books, including School Choice: the struggle for the soul of American education; Choosing Schools: vouchers and American education (with Jerome J. Hanus); and Preparing for Power: America’s élite boarding schools (with Caroline Hodges Persell). He is currently writing a book about educational policy-making at the federal level. In 1993 he was the American Sociological Association’s Congressional Fellow in the United States Senate.

Liz Gordon is a Senior Lecturer in Educational Policy at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. Her primary interest is in the role of the state in relation to educational policy. In recent years she has focused on the effects of devolution of responsibility, school choice and the growth of educational quasi-markets, both in New Zealand and internationally. She has published articles in a number of journals, including the Journal of Education Policy, British Journal of Sociology of Education, Educational Policy, Comparative Education and the New Zealand Journal of Educational Studies. At present, she is working on a book entitled Changing Markets in Education, to be published by the Open University Press. She is also actively involved in politics, acting as education spokesperson for the Alliance, a coalition of political parties opposed to new right reforms.

Sjoerd Karsten is Associate Professor of Educational Policy and Administration and Director of the Centre for the Study of Educational Policy and Organization at the University of Amsterdam. His research centres on local educational policy and administration. He has published on local governments, the teaching profession, ethnic segregation, and comparative education. He recently co-edited the volume entitled Education in East Central Europe: educational changes after the fall of communism.

Simon Marginson is a Senior Lecturer at the Centre for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Melbourne and chairs the Editorial Board of Australian Universities Review. He is author of Education and Public Policy in Australia (Cambridge 1993) and other publications and reports on higher education, schooling, vocational education and labour market issues. He recently completed a doctorate on education markets, and a history of Australian education titled For all of us? Government, education and citizenship in Australia since 1960 (forthcoming).

Gary Miron is a researcher and Director of Studies at Stockholm University’s Institute of International Education. He has written a number of articles and books on such topics as special needs education, educational evaluation, and the restructuring of education. Over the past three years he has conducted research and written on the topic of educational restructuring in Sweden. In addition to this more theoretical work, he has obtained practical experience with this topic by participating in the establishment of two independent pre-schools. He is currently working on two research projects with colleagues that deal with restructuring: one covers a number of case countries in Europe and the other examines the changes taking place in Guinea-Bissau and Nicaragua.

Brigitte Steinert studied educational science and sociology and received a doctorate in educational science at the University of Frankfurt am Main. She is Research Associate in the Department of Economics of Education at the German Institute for International Educational Research in Frankfurt am Main. Her main research topics are: educational planning and policy, sociology of education, development in educational research. She is author and co-author of several articles including: Case studies of innovation in educational research and development: Germany, in Educational Research and Development: trends, issues and challenges (Paris, OECD/CERI, 1995); Educational research in the Federal Republic of Germany, in Educational Research and Development: Austria, Germany, Switzerland (Paris, OECD, 1995); Markt und Privatisierung im Bildungsbereich: Internationale Tendenzen, Tertium Comparationis, Journal für Internationale Bildungsforschung (1996) (with M. Weiss).

Christine Teelken studied Organizational Management at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands, and education at the University of York, United Kingdom. She is preparing a dissertation about school choice and organizational features of schools in an international comparative perspective at the University of Amsterdam. Her research comprises England, Scotland and the Netherlands. Previously, she published on competition between schools in the United States of America and the Netherlands. She works part-time for a management consultancy firm.

Agnès van Zanten is a Researcher in Sociology at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (France). She prepared her Master’s degree at Stanford (USA) and obtained her doctorate at La Sorbonne Paris V University. She has published several books and articles on urban education, parents and schools, local educational policies and politics, the schooling of immigrant children and sociological and anthropological traditions in education. She is at present conducting a comparative British-French research project on markets, diversity and choice with Stephen Ball, Meg Maguire and Sheila Macrae from King’s College, University of London.

Geoffrey Walford is Lecturer in Educational Studies (sociology) in the Department of Educational Studies, University of Oxford and is a Fellow of Green College, Oxford. He was previously Senior Lecturer in Sociology and Education Policy at Aston Business School, Aston University, Birmingham. He is author of many academic articles and book chapters, and author or editor of 15 books. These include: Life in Public Schools (Methuen, 1986); Restructuring Universities: politics and power in the management of change (Croom Helm, 1987); Privatization and Privilege in Education (Routledge, 1990); City Technology College (Open University Press, 1991)(with Henry Miller); Choice and Equity in Education (Cassell, 1994) and Educational Politics: pressure groups and faith-based schools (Avebury, 1995).

Manfred Weiss is Senior Researcher in the Department of Economics of Education at the German Institute for International Educational Research in Frankfurt am Main and Lecturer at the College of Education in Erfurt. He received a doctorate in economics from the Technical University, Berlin. In 1987 he was a visiting professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo. His main research interests involve the economics of education, educational planning and policy, and international developments in education. Recent publications include: Der Arbeitsplatz Universität und die Zukunft der Hochsculen (with B von Kopp), in J. Enders & K. Teichler (Eds) Der Hochschullehrerberuf (Luchterhand, Neuwied); Mikroökonomie der Schule, in H.G. Rolff (Ed.) Zukunftsfelder von Schulforschung (Weinheim, Deutscher Studienverlag, 1995); Bildungsökonomische Wirkungsforschung: Konzepte, Methoden, empirische Befunde, in U.P. Trier (Ed.) Wirksamkeitsanalyse von Bildungssystemen (Bern und Aarau, 1995).

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