In an episode of Yes Prime Minister, Jim Hacker promises to transform education by guaranteeing parents their freedom to choose. For Sir Humphrey Appleby however, this idea was preposterous and while applauding his own ‘discerning’ parents for choosing to send him to Winchester, he believed that the government could not expect ‘ordinary’ parents to be capable of making similar choices. While the views of Sir Humphrey continue to dominate the education debate in the UK, Sweden has been operating a choice–based school funding system since the early 1990s. Families are allowed complete freedom to choose a school, whereupon public funding goes to the institution of their choice, whether it be a government–run or an independent school.

Though initially opposed by trade unions and others, the Swedish system has proved very popular, and there are now many hundreds of independent schools to which parents can send their children, assisted in this way. The choice system has not led to social segregation or selection by academic ability; but the competition that it has brought into education has pushed up standards in both municipal and independent schools.

An argument successfully used in Sweden to promote school choice, was the claim that freedom to choose in education was a basic human right, being specifically enshrined in the United Nations’ 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. An examination of the debates on this document showed that its framers were determined to avoid state monopoly in education, and hoped that confirming the right to choose would erode state monopolies where they existed. Although the Declaration’s authors wanted education to be free and compulsory, they did not want governments to dominate its provision, as presently happens in the United Kingdom.

To promote the right to choose within UK schooling, three proposals are recommended.  The first is that parents should be entitled to remove their children from schools that are failing, and choose any other school (state or independent) instead. State funding would follow these choices. In addition, small groups of parents would be eligible for small capital grants to help them establish new schools where existing schools were failing.

The second proposal is a Swedish–style universal user choice system. Public finance, representing about 70% of the per–student cost of state education, would be available to all schools on the basis of the number of students they could attract. This could actually produce a net saving to the Treasury, while simultaneously encouraging diversity and raising standards through competition.

The third proposal is for a non-refundable tax credit to provide parents with a pound–for–pound reduction in their income–tax liability (up to an agreed limit) for each child they have in non-state education. Again, it seems likely that the Treasury could actually make savings under this system, while promoting choice.  It is also suggested that the government encourage the formation of a business association for UK education companies, which will enhance quality and accountability, promote equitable policies throughout the sector, and promote dialogue on future developments in the education sector.

The Right to Choose: Yes Prime Minister! pdf


1. Introduction, James Stanfield

2. School choice reforms from Sweden, Michael Sandström

  • Arguments for and against school choice
  • The reaction to school choice
  • The key to success

3. School choice is a human right, James Stanfield

  • The writing of Article 26
  • Interpreting Article 26 and the right to education
  • Impact on the school choice debate in the UK
  • The 2005 Education White Paper

4. The National Education Service, James Tooley, Pauline Dixon & James Stanfield

  • The A+ Plan: tackling failing schools
  • The Education Fund: A trial customer choice system
  • The Education Tax Credit: A non–refundable tax credit scheme
  • A business association for UK education companies