Simon Burgess, Ellen Greaves, Anna Vignoles
Each year around 600,000 children in England need to be assigned to one of roughly 600,000 school places. That’s a huge and complex task – how should we set about it, and with what aim? Different countries deal with it in different ways, but one of the common approaches is simply to ask parents which school they’d like their child to go to. Places at oversubscribed schools are then allocated to children on the basis of published admission criteria. This choice-based system is in place in England.
It’s fair to say that this approach is not universally popular. Some see it as a bit of a sham, with little real choice available. Others see it largely as just another source of stress for parents and children, giving very little reward for investing time in it. And others see it as unfair, a mechanism for perpetuating educational inequality and increasing social segregation. One thing is clear though, which school you go to does matter: educational attainment is key to a child’s life chances, and schools vary in their ability to deliver this.
For the first time, we have access to data on all the school choices made by all the parents in England seeking a place for their child in a state secondary school. This treasure trove of data is also matched to information about the pupils making the choices, and to the schools being chosen. Fully analysing all this data will keep us busy for years. But already results are emerging to challenge some of the criticisms made of the choice-based system.
First, it’s not all just a sham. A large proportion of parents use the school choice system pro-actively to achieve a preferred school. They make many choices, they look around, and they focus on school academic quality. We find that 65% of parents make more than one choice, and 27% make all the choices they can. Perhaps surprisingly, the maximum number of choices available varies around the country, generally three or six, the higher number available in London and some other urban areas. In Southwark for example, 31% of parents make all six choices; in rural areas such as Northumberland only 20% make more than one choice. Most parents also do look beyond their local school. Perhaps contrary to expectations, only 39% of parents put their nearest school as top choice; in fact, only 55% put their nearest school as any choice. This strongly suggests a pro-active approach, not simply writing down the default. Furthermore, this activity of bypassing the local school is more common when the local school is of lower academic quality. On average, when households nominate a first-choice school that is not their nearest, their first-choice school has 20% higher attainment than the nearest.
Second, fully engaging with the school choice process does pay off. Parents who make more choices tend to end up with an offer from a higher performing school. Those making six choices and securing their first choice of school receive an offer from a higher performing school than those making just one choice, even if the latter do indeed get that one and only choice. For example, comparing those who are offered a place at their first-choice school, the percentage of pupils in the school achieving 5 A*-C is 62% for those who make one choice compared to 68% for those who make six choices. This may be because making more choices allows the household to be more “ambitious” with their top choices – choosing high performing schools where admission is not guaranteed. Indeed, those who make more choices are also offered higher performing schools even if they end up being allocated to one of their lower ranked school choices (for example their second or third choices). Finally, it is important to make the point that it is not just affluent families that invest the time to research and choose schools. Families eligible for free school meals, on average, make as many choices as richer families, are as (un)likely to choose the local school and also take account of school quality.
School choice is not a sham, and it does reward careful operation. However, we share the critique of the system that it is does not work as well for poorer families. But the key point is this – the inequality comes not in the process of choice per se. It comes in the other half of the system, in the way that places are allocated in very popular, over-subscribed schools. We have a system in which whoever can afford to live near to the good school gets in. This criterion is not the only way to allocate pupils to schools and we have written before about alternatives that do not link a child’s chance of getting into popular schools to her parents’ income. This is what needs to be reformed, rather than abandoning the idea of choice altogether.