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School choice has been “nudged” in a new direction as DFE adopts behavioural economics

Blog posted by Ian McGimpsey (September 5, 2012).

“Choice” has been central to education policy for many years now. Today, offering more and more opportunities for individual choice forms part of the common sense of public service reform. But it now looks as though the role of choice in policy might be changing as ideas of what “choosing” means are revised, and the language of ‘behaviour change’ is utilised by government.

The school system exemplifies choice in education. Money follows parental choice. Therefore, so the policy story goes, schools that perform better can expect to be better attended and thus better funded. By this logic, to remove choice would run counter to the interests of parents, young people, tax payers and the best providers. Education sociologists have developed critical tools to examine this story of choice. And research suggests it has not led to improvements in performance across the system or for all young people.

Nevertheless, choice has remained a resilient concept in policy even in the face of these challenges, drawing on deep cultural roots in mainstream liberal politics. Yet, in recent years, it has become clear that this resilience also owes something to changing ideas about the chooser. Until recently, choosing has been generally conceived as a conscious process in which people consider their options using the best information available, and then pick the best one. Now there is evidence that in policy these fundamental assumptions about who choosers are and how they choose are evolving.

School “Choice Advisors” were introduced by the Labour Government in 2006 to assist parents in picking a school for their child. This was an acknowledgement that the school choice system was not working for all young people. The aim was to change the choosing behaviour of parents. Policy makers’ underpinning concern was that people were not choosing “rationally”.  Policy appears to have developed a language to describe such an intervention – that of “behaviour change” which draws heavily on behavioural economics, popularised by Thaler and Sunstein’s book Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth and happiness.

This notion takes a different view of an individual’s capacity to choose rationally, suggesting “choices” are likely to be shaped by a series of cognitive biases. We might put too much weight on the risk of loss and pay too little attention to reward, put off a choice rather than deal with bureaucracy, or we might never change a long-term choice (like a pension provider) even if better options become available. The school choice intervention relies on a social influence by a personal advisor who can call, meet or text the parent about school choice. Moreover, it is argued that these biases are predictable tendencies within populations. This provides the basis for the development of new policy tools.

Significant effort has gone into developing policy that utilises these ideas. For example, the Department for Education currently funds the Centre for Understanding Behaviour Change (CUBeC), while the Cabinet Office has a Behavioural Insights Team. The goal is to design systems that will tend to produce desirable outcomes, not by relying only on ‘rational’ choices being made, but by predicting ‘irrational’ behaviour to design systems or environments that will change the ‘choices’ being made.

There is still doubt about the effectiveness of these policy interventions. However, they raise important issues and new questions.  What are the social justice implications of system design that positions the policy maker as “choice architect”? What policy problems are being solved by changing the idea of the rational chooser?

Perhaps the most important issue is the way that the revision of the rational chooser provides a survival strategy for large scale systems of choice. Even as the social justice limitations of choice-based policy strategies persist, “behaviour change” provides new explanations for their failure, and new policy interventions to act upon. So, although predictable irrationality contradicts the fundamental story about the chooser as a rational operator, yet it may act to preserve “choice” within the system.

This blog is based on Revising Rationality: the use of ”Nudge” approaches in neoliberal education policy by Alice Bradbury, Ian McGimpsey and Diego Santori. The article has been accepted for publication by the Journal of Education Policy.

Alice Bradbury and Ian McGimpsey presented a paper based on these ideas at the BERA Conference 2012 at Manchester University, on Wednesday 5 September. For more details contact Ian McGimpsey:

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