NASUWT on the importance of Local Schools

This week NASUWT published the results of a survey, commissioned last year, seeking parents’ views of schools and colleges.   Alongside views of education the results reveal the most and least important factors that parents consider when choosing a school or college for their child, as well as the strategies they have used to inform their decision making. The following table reveals the responses to the question:

Which, if any, are the most important factors when choosing your child’s school/college?

(Comres, 2015: 7)
(Comres, 2015: 7)

In reporting these results NASUWT has highlighted location (referring to the school’s proximity to the family home, or parent’s workplace) as the most popular factor to be identified as important by parents.  In contrast, league table position is highlighted as being considered as important by only 21% of parents surveyed.   Clearly, in publishing these survey responses NASUWT are trying to challenge the importance that UK Government discourses place on quantitative measures of school ‘performance’.  The message  given is that parents believe other things are more important when considering the future education of their children and the Government should, therefore, focus on providing more ‘good’ local schools and focusing less on league tables:

“It remains the case that for the majority of parents the locality of a school is a key factor, supporting the NASUWT’s long-argued view that what every parent wants is access to a good local school.”

Aside from what is mean by a “good school”, while it may not appear a surprising result, the identification of locality may be more complex.  As Burgess et al (2014) discuss, while location may be an important factor in school choice decision making, this factor is itself influenced by the context in which the parents are identifying that location as an important factor.

“household location is a choice and may be endogenously affected by demand for high-quality schools. Suppose a family had moved to an area with good academic schools for this reason. This would give undue weight to proximity to the school in estimation, so the true preference for academic quality would appear as a preference for proximity.” (Burgess, et al, 2014: 7-8)

Location is clearly important, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that parents view academic performance as any less important, even though they may appear to do so when asked this question in a survey.  As Ball and Vincent (1998) observe, the school choice process may be a long term project, particularly for middle-class parents, which takes several years.  So, in the example from Burgess et al (2014) parents who may have moved house in order to be in proximity to what they view as a ‘good’ school would have done this because of the importance they place on academic standards.  However, they may well identify proximity as the most important factor if asked about choosing a school for their child.

When asked about strategies employed in school-choice decision making, 29% of parents reported they had checked school performance data tables, which is slightly higher, but not inconsistent with the percentage identifying this as an important factor in decision making.  School Performance Tables are provided by the  Department of Education and this facility allows anyone who is interested to view a range of selected data on schools and to compare this ‘performance’ with other schools. Presumably, if the statistics from the NASUWT survey are representative, around a third of parents are using this tool in their school choice decision making, meaning most parents, around two thirds, are not. Again, the results from this survey are far from nuanced.  As Ball and Vincent (1998) revealed in their study, school-choice decision making is a complex process and the importance placed on ‘cold’ knowledge, such as performance data is shaped by a range of factors, such as social class and gender.  The NASUWT survey  makes a valid point in highlighting that relatively few parents consult this kind of data when choosing a school or college for their child, but more information is needed.  An interesting question remains: what type of parent believes performance tables are an important factor in school-choice decision making and how do they interpret this data?  Or: Are some groups of parents being super-served via school performance tables

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Primary National Offer Day

Last week saw the first ever national offer day for primary school places.  This is the day when parents of children due to start primary school in September are informed of the schools to which their children have been offered a place.

News values (Galthung and Ruge, 1965) are apparent in the responses of the news media.  Using emotive language to highlight an apparent ‘crisis’ over the availability of school places the news reports focus on the personal stories of families who are not offered a place at their nearby, invariably ‘good’, school. ITV runs with the story of four year old Lily, ‘denied’ a place at a school 400 yards from her home. To claim that Lily was ‘denied’ a place effectively simplifies the policy process, making it easier to digest.  The family may have chosen the nearest school, it being their preference, but places were offered to other children, on the basis of the admissions criteria.

The Guardian runs with the headline: Class war in English villages as lack of primary school places hits families.  The article features the Beevers, a family who were drawn to move to the village of  Stotfold partly because of the ‘good’ schools.  The class strategies (Ball, 2002) of such parents are normalised, and the discussion of the ‘good’ school  is depoliticised (see for example Exley, 2013). We are invited to assume that the existence of a ‘good’ school is coincidental to the socio-economic status of the people living in the locality.  Yet, the evidence suggests otherwise.  While dated,

Lacey, in his classic study on Hightown Grammar neatly highlights the reproduction of social class advantage inherent in seeking out a ‘good’ school:

“Middle-class parents who are education-conscious try to register their children at the best junior school in the area….In doing so, they inadvertently ensure that the school remains the best junior school in the area…” (1970: p. 35)

There is an almost disregard of the ways in which policy of allocating school places may be implemented at local level aside from some cursory comparisons made between the rates of preferences offered by local authorities.   For example, The Guardian focuses on the different rates in different local authorities while the Daily Mail highlights how a few select (mainly southern eastern) local authorities have not been able to offer as many first preferences this year. In short, the coverage goes no further than description of differences in rates, and is therefore decontextualised.  There is very little coverage on the admissions criteria of the most preferred schools, this information might explain why Adam Beevers and four year old Lily have not been offered places at their nearest schools .  While the frustrations of, almost exclusively, middle class parents are highlighted in news reports there is an absence of discussion on how the policy of school choice works within each local authority. How are school choice advisers used, and how might these street level bureaucrats (Lipsky, 2010) help parents make informed decisions about choices?  How might these advisers translate policy to provide advice to parents on choosing a school where the contexts in which families live constrain the choices they can make? Researchers, as opposed to journalists have explored these issues. Burgess et al (2011) consider that first choice preferences from some parents from disadvantaged backgrounds may be “resigned” (p.542) meaning that parents choose the school they know they are likely to get) while Exley (2013) found that choice advisers themselves felt their role should be to encourage parents to make realistic choices.

News media are trying to sell a story, so emotive language,  focus on personalities, and an oversimplification of policy are to be expected.  However  as Wallace (1997) points out  “The output of the mass media is a key resource” (p. 148) in the policy process.   According to the  Daily Mail article the fault lies with immigration, along with a baby boom.  Funding by central government is highlighted, particularly its claim that more ‘good’ schools are being created through free schools and academies. On the other hand The Guardian appears to more supportive of local authorities, highlighting the “[s]trenuous efforts by London boroughs”. It is not too difficult to work out where those ‘unseen hands’ (Wallace, 1997) are trying to guide policy.

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Gove smells defeat

Last week, during a book launch speech, the secretary of state for education, Michael Gove referred to under achievement in some North East schools, particularly those in East Durham.  This comment in particular has provoked an angry response from local MPs Phil Wilson and Grahame Morris:

“When you go into those schools, you can smell the sense of defeatism.”

If Gove’s statement is a boast about his olfactory perception, it takes little effort to unpick.

The Northern Echo reports Gove’s belief that, in East Durham there is a “problem of ambition in certain traditional communities”.  For traditional, read working class, and you can see how this statement taps into an idea that the causes of educational underachievement amongst working class children lies with the culture within working class communities, rather than with structural inequalities where working class communities are disadvantaged.  However, on this occasion Gove is careful not to directly accuse East Durham parents of a poverty of ambition.  His specific target, in this current attack is not the parents, but the organisation of schooling in Durham. Thus, his target reveals his motivation.  He is taking an aim at the Labour run Durham County Council and the schools themselves:

“It is the case that there’s no choice, the local council has been one party for many years”

In this way Gove is drawing on the rhetoric of choice promoted in the academies and free school initiatives.  In other words he stands in opposition to the collective approach of local authority schooling, the simplistic rationale being that collectivity limits choice, and therefore restricts individuality.   It is an attack designed to weaken the teaching profession, by laying the blame for apparent failures in education at their hands, in an effort to justify the case for the privatisation of schools.

The Northern Echo is currently awaiting responses to the following questions which they recently posed to the Department for Education:

  • On what evidence the Education Secretary based his views about East Durham schools?
  • How many schools he has visited in the area?
  • Whether has been told of “defeatism” by any heads, teachers or parents in East Durham?

National offer day

National offer day was March 1st.  This was the day when Local Authorities in England communicated offers of secondary school places to parents of children due to transfer to secondary school in the coming September.  However, it was only recently that detailed statistics relating to national offer day were published. Each year, parents whose children are due to transfer to state secondary school the following September apply to their Local Authority for a place for their child. Parents express a minimum of three preferred schools, listing the schools in order of preference.  Some Local Authorities enable parents to list up to six prefered schools while others allow only the minimum three. Overall, according to the statistics released by the Department for Education, 85.3% of families received an offer for their first preference school.  When an offer is made to one of three prefered schools this figure rises to 95.9%,  and increases to 97.6% where families are made an offer for a place at any of their preferred schools.  In other words, across England as a whole the vast majority of offers are made for schools identified as the families’ first choice.

A selection of news headlines serves to illustrate that the media gaze is on those not offered a place at their first choice of school.  The Guardian ran with One in seven pupils miss out on first choice secondary school, while The Independent interpreted the figures slightly differently in its headline of One in six miss first choice school.  Meanwhile, The Telegraph proclaimed its displeasure with its statement of  Children ‘forced to accept unpopular secondary schools’ .

These news reports also highlighted regional disparities which show that a higher percentage of places at first preference schools are offered in the North East while the lowest percentages are in London. The Telegraph however, chose to ignore the North East completely in its article.

Figures, by Local Authority are available from the Department for Education’s research and statistics pages.  The regional breakdown is shown in the following table.

Region

% 1st preferences offered

North East

95.1

North West

90.8

Yorkshire and the Humber

91.2

East Midlands

93.1

West Midlands

81.3

East of England

86.5

Inner London

65.8

Outer London

68.4

South East

84.9

South West

91.7

While it seems that if you live in the North East of England you will have the greatest chance of being offered a place at your first preferred school, this is not the case in Middlesbrough where the figure is  79.9%.  However,  you can be almost certain of an offer at your first choice of secondary school if you live up the coast in Hartlepool.  While London is identified as the worst place for getting into the school of first preference, there is, in contrast to the overall inner London figure, a relatively high chance of securing your first place if you live in Newham where 82.4% of places were offered to schools of first preference.  Making these comparisons between regions and between authorities is limited without further context knowledge about the socio-economic context in which preferences regarding school choice are made.

The discourses surrounding the publication of these figures equates preferred schools with ‘good schools’.  It is assumed that the higher the number of pupils who are offered a place at their 1st choice of school means the high the number of ‘good’ schools available in that area.  It is the rhetoric of the education market place.  This was expressed by the Minister of State for Schools,  Nick Gibb, when releasing the figures:

“Parents are faced with an extremely competitive and stressful process for securing a place for their children. We want to ease this pressure by creating more good school places, which is the driver behind all our reforms to the education system” (DFE, 2012)

However, this simplifies the process of school choice, in particular avoiding any recognition of social class differences in choosing secondary schools  (as discussed in the selected sources below). There is more analysis that can be done with these figures beyond the simplistic, but appealing comparative analysis provided in the mainstream press.

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Ruairi is too bright for Loxley Barratt

Borsetshire must have more than its fair share of private schools and privately educated pupils if The Archers are anything to go by.  We know this because school choice, once again, features in the storyline.

Ruairi Donovan has been through a lot in his short life.  He is the son of Brian Aldridge from his extra-marital affair with the lately departed Siobhan Hathaway/Donovan.  She died from cancer, in 2007.  Upon her death, Brian’s long-suffering, but immensely strong wife, Jennifer agreed to take him on. Bewildered, little Ruairi  arrived at Home Farm. The decision about his schooling then, was that, if possible he should attend, the local primary,  Loxley Barratt.  It would be too traumatic to be packed off to boarding school so soon after loosing his mother and being transported to Ambridge.  They had missed the application for school places, and, as the fictional school at Loxley Barratt was fully subscribed, they had an anxious wait over that summer to see if a place became available.  They were in luck. Ruairi has settled.

Fast forward nearly four years, such fears have evaporated, and now boarding is being seriously considered for this eight year old.  So, in other words, Brian and Jennifer are perusing the education market place.

They appear to have an abstract notion that private is better than state.  They are not so much dissatisfied with Loxley Barratt as convinced that it is not good enough for Ruairi, referring to some unsubstantiated claim that his teacher wouldn’t expect him to complete all his homework.  Brian and Jennifer are articulate, why don’t they exercise their cultural capital by speaking to Ruairi’s teacher to find out what this story is really about?

Educational expertise is not wholly trusted by Brian and Jennifer.  Instead they are engaging in a class based process of school choice.   Brian did remark that it is an increasingly competitive world out there; he wants Ruairi to have the edge.  In other words, he wants to ensure, understandably, the reproduction of his social class advantage.

It could be argued that they are engaged in a process of matching Ruairi to the most appropriate school (Ball, 2011). Firstly, this can be seen in their  decision to go private on the basis that Ruairi is bright, and therefore, presumably too clever for the state sector.  Secondly, we heard their rejection of private day schools on the grounds of the amount of traveling involved, which, Jennifer in particular felt would be too much for young Ruairi.  Lastly, boarding school was felt to be appropriate for Ruairi because of the activities on offer, he would surely enjoy these, and to deny him these opportunities as a day pupil wouldn’t be fair.  So, it is in Ruairi’s best interests to board, he has been matched to this type of school.

Jennifer has also been consulting the grapevine (Ball and Vincent, 1998), to help with the decision making. Thus far, this has involved phoning Elizabeth Pargetter as to her opinions about local boarding schools.   Ball and Vincent describe the kind of information that Elizabeth might be able to offer as hot knowledge.  Elizabeth might be able to describe her feel for a school, with this helpful to the Brian and Jennifer, supplementing the cold of official knowledge they have already obtained from the schools’ websites and Ofsted reports.

The rationales presented by Brian and Jennifer suggest that there is no alternative for Ruairi.  He must be educated privately, and, no doubt he will be. Of course, there is an alternative, but this is ignored in Jennifer and Brian’s thought processes. Their decision making is presented as normal, natural, what all parents go through, not the class based process that it is.

When the time  comes for secondary school choice to be made, they could utilise the grapevine to seek out the hot knowledge of Jill Archer.  She would advise them, as she did her own daughter, that: There’s nothing wrong with Borchester Green.

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What now for the Pargetter twins?

Yesterday, listeners to The Archers will have tuned in to hear Nigel Pargetter’s funeral.  In a previous post I described how Nigel fell off his roof.

At the end of the episode the issue of Freddie and Lily Pargetter’s impending entrance exam cropped up.  Remember, it is hoped that they will be accepted to The Cathedral School, in nearby Felpersham.   Elizabeth Pargetter rounds off the conversation with:

“I have to do something about it”

What, we don’t know, yet.

Shocked “to the core”

Listeners to the BBC Radio serial The Archers were expecting an eventful anniversary episode tonight.  The storyline would “shock Ambridge to the core”.  In the final few minutes of the said episode, Nigel Pargetter fell from the roof of Lower Loxley Hall.

According to the editor, Vanessa Whitburn this event  is so dramatic “it will still be affecting Ambridge in 10 years’ time.”

In a previous post I described the dilemma over school choice that the Pargetters were experiencing.  So, we can now assume the decision over the future education of Lily and Freddie Pargetter is made.  They will be far too traumatised to face the imminent entrance exam for the Cathedral School. Will Borchester Green have the honour of educating the Pargetter twins after all?

A look back at Education 2010 – Part 1

The title of this post is not exciting, but hopefully it explains what follows.

It is almost the end of the year, and a time to review all things educational, while ‘looking forward’ to changes in educational policy and provision that will start to unravel over the next few months. I’ll start with Waterloo Road. Like it or not, it is a popular representation of contemporary schooling, granted it is not accurate, but it does represent a reality, and as such, we can predict that Waterloo Road, will have to start responding to the Schools White Paper very soon.

In Waterloo Road, the televisual representation of Britain’s comprehensive schools, Karen Fisher took over as the new Head.

Her deputy, Christopher Mead wakes up at the start of the first episode, the morning after having sexual intercourse with one of his pupils, Jess Fisher.  A criminal record and ruined career awaited, and, while the narrative invited us to be sympathetic towards him, maybe we should question his judgement.  He obviously had not learned his lesson from the previous series about inappropriate relationships with pupils (remember Vicki MacDonald).  Granted, when he embarked on this particular relationship (relationship as in a one night encounter) he didn’t know she was a pupil, but she was clearly of an age that she could be one of his pupils.  He might have avoided the stress if he had got to know his new girlfriend a little better before sleeping with her.  With a big question mark over his sexual politics, Christopher Mead’s career was on the line when the truth was finally revealed to the Head, and mother of  Jess Fisher,  the sixth former in question, but, as a good teacher he remains in post, his contribution as a positive male role model assured for the next series.

The troubled family life of the new Head began to unravel from the very first episode.  In the second episode we witnessed her son Harry experiencing eating distress.  Eventually this was revealed to his family, via the taunts of a fellow pupil, Finn Sharkey.  His mother could have directed him to BEAT’s  Rough Guide for Young Men though, as there was no reference to the eating disorder charity, it was unlikely she did so, and, predictably, by the end of the series he appeared to free from bulimia.

Waterloo Road returns in the Spring, just in time for it to be feeling the pinch of efficiency savings and educational reform.  It will have a much reduced curriculum, concentrating on the essential academic subjects with pupils recalling the essential dates in history, well from a British perspective at least.   The teachers will have greater powers to discipline pupils.  In any case discipline will improve at Waterloo Road, following a crackdown on the flexible interpretation of its uniform.  By the next series, pupils will be dressed in regulation blazers and ties,  and the school will be freed from Local Education Authority control.  Standards will rise, pupils on free school meals will be accepted for Oxbridge, and the future of Waterloo Road, as the preferred school of choice amongst Rochdale’s most aspirational parents will be assured.   It will be a triumph of a neo-liberal education ideology.

“There’s nothing wrong with Borchester Green”

So says Jill Archer in BBC Radio 4’s The Archers. It comes in response to the extra tuition her grandchildren, twins Freddie and Lily Pargetter are receiving in an attempt to ensure they pass the entrance exam to the Cathedral School in Felpersham.  They currently attend the local state primary school in Loxley Barrett.

Nigel Pargetter, the twins’ father, being almost aristocratic and owning a country estate, always intended for his children to go to his old boarding school Clavisborne. Not quite as posh, more middle class, their mother, Elizabeth Pargetter (née Archer), was, at first, keen to allow them to follow in the Pargetter tradition.  In the summer she began expressing her doubts about boarding school, and so the Pargetters began exploring the possibility of the Cathedral School.  The twins’ cousin, Daniel Hebden Lloyd already attends this school.  His father, Alistair Lloyd wasn’t too happy about this, but conceded, partly because Daniel’s grandparents (the parents of his late biological father) stumped up the fees.

The Pargetters are self-excluding (Whitty, 2001)[1] themselves from state education, following an age-old tradition of the upper classes.  They still intend to self-exclude even though they have taken the decision to have the children attend a school close by.  Borchester Green has never been on their radar.

What is wrong with Borchester Green?

The short answer is, nothing.

Interestingly,  Borchester Green is likely to be seen as a ‘safe choice’ for many middle-class parents who cannot afford the fees for private education.  Granted, Borcetshire, Borchester Green, Ambridge, and The Archers are fictional, but it is reasonable to assume that this rural community has a large middle class population who have colonised the state education provision (ibid).  If they were to attend Borchester Green Freddie and Lily are at an advantage, they come from a wealthy, upper middle class family.  Social class remains the greatest predictor of education success.

Surely though, they would  do better at private school?

Not necessarily, private schools are not homogenous, they don’t all offer the same standard of education (whatever that might be).  In any case, why assume the quality of teaching is any better at a private school?  Importantly, private schools don’t equate to the long-established public schools such as Eton and Harrow for the boys, and Roedean for girls.  Here, social networks are likely to be as significant as academic credentials for a successful future life.  I’m not sure that the Cathedral School in Felpersham is quite in the same league.  Additionally, despite their obvious poshness, I’m not sure that the Pargetters are in the same elite social networks as those families who have sent their offspring to Eton and Harrow for generations.

The Pargetters could do no worse than save their money.  Jill Archer is right, the Pargetters have little to fear from Borchester Green.  It is almost as if she had read the recent report from the Sutton Trust which found that students from comprehensive schools outperformed at degree level, those students who went to either Independent or Grammar School.

However, someone should inform the Pargetters that they may have missed the deadline date for applying for a place at secondary school.

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