The impact of parental choice on school admissions

One of the principles introduced under the 1988 Education Act by the then Conservative Government was the notion of parental choice in selecting a school for their child.  The idea behind this was that the market would drive up standards in education, good schools would be the popular schools while bad schools would be forced to improve or squeezed out of the market altogether as parents sent their children elsewhere. League tables became important as parents could digest these and make informed decisions about which was the best school for their child.  This all sounds well and good….no-one would want to send their child to a failing school, therefore pupils would go to the better schools and standards would be driven up as bad schools improved in order to compete and retain pupils.

In reality, it is quite different.  Sociological research has examined the strategies and resources that middle class parents employ in order to get their child into the school of their choice.  For example writers including Reay, Lucey, Bowe, Ball and Gerwitz have all identified a range of strategies that middle class parents use. 

More recently, as reported in The Guardian,  Simon Burgess, Ellen Greaves, Anna Vignoles and Deborah Wilson have produced a report through Bristol University’s Centre for Market and Public Organisation which finds that social class segregation  at primary school is being fuelled by the policy of parental choice. One of the key factors for poorer parents was the proximity of the primary school. In other words they are likely to choose a school for their child because it is close.  Middle class parents, of course have more resources (i.e a car) to ensure that their child is able to attend a school at a distance from home. 

The solution that the authors suggest is a lottery.   At secondary school level this has already been tried, in Brighton as reported by the BBC provoking angry responses from some parents.  The lottery meant, of course that parents could not employ strategies to get their child into the school of their choice, instead the process was replaced by a system that treated everyone the same.  The authors of this latest report add to this, arguing that a lottery would be a means of ensuring a greater social mix and less social segregation in our schools.

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The key stage 2 attainment of ‘poor’ white boys

This week saw the release of statistics on Key Stage 2 attainment, broken down by pupils characteristics for 2008/09.  The figures are published as part of the Department for Children, School’s and Families’ (DCSF) programme of releasing education statistics, and is published in a Statistical First Release available as a PDF here.   While news reports have focused on the 48% of poor white boys who achieve the expected Level 4 at key stage 2, the figures need to interpreted carefully.  The term ‘poor’ comes from the measure used by the DCSF, that is eligibility for free school meals  (often referred to as FSM) and is not an unproblematic way of measuring the poverty experienced by school pupils. The key word eligibility for free school meals is misleading, as it actually describes the claiming of FSM.  Children who are ‘eligible’ for FSM also share some family background characteristics, particularly coming from a  single parent family.  The FSM figure is therefore only a proxy for poverty, although it is a widely used one.  It will exclude some children who live in ‘poor’ households.  It also serves to homogenise all children eligible for FSM, ignoring differences between them, in other words not all pupils eligible for FSM will be suffering from cultural and material deprivation and be growing up in households where educational attainment is not considered important.   Graham Hobbs and Anna Vignoles, from the London School of Economics provide a detailed analysis of the utility of using FSM data to measure pupils’ experiences of poverty.  In addition the Statistical First Release provides information on the Key Stage 2 attainment of other pupils, which to some extent has largely been ignored by the focus on ‘poor’ white boys.   The figures show that pupils from an Irish Traveller background and those of a Gypsy/Romany background do particularly poorly at Key Stage 2.  Pupils from a Pakistani and Bangladeshi background continue to do less well than their white peers, as do children from Black African and Black Caribbean backgrounds.   Indian and Chinese pupils continue to outperform other ethnic groups.  The figures also show a continuing gender gap, as overall a higher proportion of girls (74.4%) achieved Level 4 at Key Stage 2 than did boys (69.3%).The figures do indicate that class (which is difficult to measure with any degree of certainty), gender and ethnicity shape educational attainment and that an intersection of all three is significant, it is this intersection which needs to be examined in greater detail to help explain the subtleties in differential attainment of pupils by class, ethnicity and gender.