Examining School Choice
7 October 2016
The extension of parental choice of schools has been a key feature in numerous education reforms undertaken by successive governments. Given the weaknesses and limits to the notion of school choice, however, is it time we talk about something else?
Whenever a new school reform or policy is announced, you can almost be certain that it will be followed by the strapline of increasing school choices for parents. When Theresa May announced her intention to end the ban on new grammar schools, it was followed by an emphasis on increasing parental choice: ‘the diversity of high quality provision means that we will be able to […] give parents real control over the kind of school they want for their children’.1 It is an emphasis that is by no means unique to the current Government. In 2004, the then Prime Minister Tony Blair summarised his education policy as being the following: ‘More good schools, more help for schools that are failing, more types of school for parents to choose from - that is our policy’.2
The idea of school choice relies on two, seemingly straightforward premises; firstly, that parents are best placed to identify the most suitable learning environment for their child and, secondly, that school choice will drive competition and efficiency in the system as parents will tend to select higher performing schools, sending a strong message to unattractive and underperforming schools that they need to improve. Under this scenario, parents will treat the school system as a marketplace, carefully weighing the benefits and disadvantages of different options before coming to an informed decision.
Numerous studies have highlighted that not all choices are made equal when it comes to schools, however. One study found that very few primary pupils have more than three local alternatives and one in four have only one school within a reasonable travel distance.3 While pupils in urban areas tend to have a higher number of schools available to choose from, they are also less likely to gain admission to a school of their first choice.4 There are also differences in the quality of schools available depending on parents’ socio-economic background, with wealthier families having access to a larger proportion of high achieving schools in their area compared to poorer groups.5 There are some parents for whom school choice may amount to nothing more than a selection among similarly poor performing schools.
While a low number of schools to choose from, or an absence of meaningful school alternatives, is arguably not preferable, an unlimited set of options is also unrealistic. This raises the question of what, precisely, it is that parents ought to be choosing between, and what type of options are deemed to be important and worth protecting. It is difficult to imagine an argument in defence of a system designed to protect parents’ ability to have a say in whether their child goes to a school with predominately wealthy or poor children; at the same time, parents are unlikely to wish to send their child to a school on the basis that the school is academically inferior or further away from the home. Yet according to one recent study, the factors that parents care the most about when selecting a school include travel distance, academic attainment and the socio-economic background of pupils. These preferences were also similar among parents from different socio-economic groups; ‘The majority of households prefer schools with higher academic standards. On average, families prefer schools with fewer children living in low-income households’.6
If the criteria that is most important to parents when selecting a school is academic attainment, which many studies indicate, then the notion of choice begins to look problematic. For choice to be a meaningful exercise, it appears to depend on the existence of a number of options that can be deemed better or worse according to some specified criteria or preference. One can assume that, at least for a majority of parents, their interest in the ability to make a choice would likely decline if all schools produced equally good outcomes for pupils. One study suggests that most parents value choice not as an end in itself, but as means to ensuring a good standard of education for their children:
‘Large proportions support the idea that parents should send their children to the nearest state school – and when they do not support this idea, it is largely because they feel the quality and social mixes of pupils between schools are too uneven, not because they have a fundamental conviction that people should always be able to choose from a range of schools’.7
Protecting the ability of parents to have a say in the kind of education that their child receives - particularly in terms of selecting an education that is reflective of their religious or philosophical convictions - is both important and necessary. However, it is important to recognise the limits of school choice and acknowledge that not all choices are, or even can be, made equal. An increasing emphasis on the idea of parental choice also risks distracting from what is arguably more important, which is ensuring that each child has access to a high quality education. While the notion of school choice presumes access to alternatives, it does not in and by itself depend on it or even require it, as an individual may find themselves in a position of choosing between a number of equally poor options. Focusing on access rather than choice is arguably a better way of recognising the interests of parents, which is ensuring a good school for every child.
© The Research Base 2017