Scrap school admissions policies based on postcode – they entrench inequality

In search of better schools. Primary desk via luminaimages/Shutterstock

Why are pupils from disadvantaged families more often found studying in poorly performing schools? Is it the choices their parents make, or are they not able to get into better ones? Perhaps families are choosing local schools despite low performance. Or perhaps the school admissions system, which is built around how close a child lives to a school, actually works against poorer families.

Our new research shows that constraints such as proximity to a good school are driving more inequality between low and high-income families than other preferences around whether the school is strong academically. We suggest new admissions systems – based around lotteries or “banding” based on ability – could help reduce some of this inequality.

Our research, from Bristol University’s Centre for Marketing and Public Organisation, the Institute for Fiscal Studies and Cambridge University, looked at the choices of primary schools for thousands of families in England, using the Millennium Cohort Study data for 2004-2006.

Restricted choices for poorer families

We found that there are substantial differences in the academic quality of local schools for families in different socio-economic groups. The top fifth of wealthiest families have schools nearby that get grades substantially higher than those available to families in the poorest fifth of families.

On top of that is a second layer of difference. When popular schools have more applicants than places, there has to be some mechanism to ration those places. The most widespread criterion in England is proximity – families living closer to the school are given priority.

Our study shows that this adds a substantial further difference to the quality of available schools. When considering those schools feasible in terms of distance and the probability of admission, the schools available to the richest fifth of families were a third better in terms of quality than those for the poorest fifth. It is this criterion that is responsible for a significant component of inequality in access to high-performing schools.

What families care about

Our research then related families’ actual choices of school to the attributes of all local and feasible schools to estimate the strength of the families’ preferences for these attributes. We also investigated the variation in the choices made by richer and poorer families. Our results show that families care about three main school attributes: the academic quality of the school, its socio-economic composition and how far away it is from their home.

The majority of households prefer schools with higher academic standards. On average, families prefer schools with fewer children living in low-income households. Almost all households have strong preferences for a school near where they live.

But preferences differ across socio-economic groups. Those in the lower socio-economic groups in particular have distinct preferences. On average, they opt for schools with lower academic quality and a higher proportion of pupils from low-income backgrounds – because these families have to make a trade-off between distance and quality.

What role choice has to play

Households from different socio-economic groups face differences in the type of schools available, but also have different preferences. Both factors may contribute to the unequal spread of pupils from different socio-economic groups in different schools: we wanted to know which factor was more important.

The majority of our survey sample shared the same feasible school choices with at least one other household. This allowed us to compare the choices of households from different socio-economic groups who had the same options of where to send their children to school.

We found that constraints based on admissions criteria (mainly due to proximity) accounted for two thirds of the overall difference in the schools parents sent their children to. This proved again that choice was restricted for many households.

Alternative to proximity

The broader implications of our results for choice in education are mixed. Most parents in our data have a strong preference for schools with high academic attainment. This supports the idea that competition to meet these preferences should help to raise the standards in England’s schools. The differences in school choices made between households with higher and lower socio-economic status therefore largely reflect differences in the available schools.

What can be done? Popular schools cannot take everyone who applies – there has to be some mechanism to ration places. If we want to break the link between access to high-performing schools and family income, then we need an alternative to using proximity as a tie-breaker.

Lotteries and banding

A lottery for over-subscribed places is one idea used around the world, but only infrequently in England. Schools could set aside a fraction of places for applicants who live beyond the “catchment” area of the school.

Alternatively, schools could apply a banding system often used in the past, whereby their intake of pupils is spread across applicants with different socio-economic backgrounds, or prior attainment.

The overall goal for policy is to make all schools excellent. But until that nirvana arrives we cannot ignore the question of how places in better-performing schools are allocated. And at the moment, the proximity criterion for admissions means that differences in family income have a substantial and regressive impact on that allocation.