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.