Where have 30 years of parental choice left school admissions?

Where next? Dave Thompson/PA Wire

Children across the country are absorbing news of which secondary schools they will be going to from September following National Offer Day on March 2. Parents with children applying for primary school places must wait until April 16. For the great majority who are pleased with their offer, it marks the end of an often fraught process.

A disappointed minority will opt to appeal or may refuse to send their children to a school that they vociferously reject.

Local and national politicians, admissions officers, headteachers and school appeal panels have learned to manage these seasonal difficulties, but parents routinely bemoan limitations on choice and a shortage of good schools. As this coalition government draws to a close, it’s timely to consider where we are with school admissions.

Fair play

A recent review that I conducted for the education charity RISE found the existing codes of admissions practice have maintained procedural fairness, despite some weakening in the current code. Some over-subscription criteria that had been previously outlawed have now been rehabilitated. Responsibility for admissions of children who apply during the year has been removed from local authority control and admission forums – locally representative committees that monitor local admissions – have become discretionary.

There is almost complete compliance with the letter of the law and little evidence of significant illegal selection. But schools continue to have strong incentives to select their intake and there is evidence from the reports of the Schools Adjudicator of disruption in the effectiveness of the regulations. This is due to the reduction in the number of community schools (whose admission policies are governed by the local authority) and an increase in the number of academies. Alongside voluntary-aided, free schools and faith schools, academies can set their own admissions policies.

But I found that widespread compliance co-exists with continued social segregation. Rich and poor are still likely to be educated in separate institutions. The schools that poorer children attend are more likely to perform poorly than those attended by their richer peers, according to research by the Sutton Trust charity.

Enhancing parental choice – the driver behind the academies and free schools programme in England – was supposed to address this. All schools would improve as a result of competition and poorer parents would be able to apply for better-performing schools. But the widespread use of a proximity criterion by schools, together with residential segregation means that poorer parents are constrained to apply to poorer performing schools.

What drives parent choice

Parents do not choose on the basis of school performance alone. They choose for many different reasons which can include the school’s academic performance. But the school being near and the social background of the other children attending are stronger determinants.

Research led by Simon Burgess at Bristol has shown that some poorer parents opt for poorer performing primary schools even when they have a good chance of admission to those that have better exam results. Older qualitative studies and more recent analyses show that this also happens at the secondary stage as a result of a similar range of factors including residential segregation, the widespread use of a proximity criterion and the fact that parents choose schools with children from their own communities. The market is not working in its own terms.

Where you live still plays a key role in what school your children go to. Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire

But these causes of segregation can be interpreted in radically different ways by educationalists. For those who have faith in markets, they are technical dysfunctions that can be mended by reducing constraints on choice. For critics of market reform, they are evidence that motives other than rational consumerism mean that an education market cannot work to deliver system improvement or more just outcomes.

From a historical perspective, the factors are evidence of an enduring feature of English education – that different education pathways are used to express and maintain social distance.

Tools to reduce segregation

If schools with socially segregated intakes are seen by everyone working in education as a problem, there are tools that can be used to balanced intakes. Grammar schools and fee-paying private schools are explicit instruments of segregation and they could – albeit with huge political effort – be abolished. Less radically, locally tailored banding, or random selection, would ensure a range of prior attainment and more socially mixed school populations. Dedicated catchment areas for schools, or feeder arrangements with local primary schools can be used for the same purpose.

But even these more modest measures are not easy options. There would be opposition from some schools and parents. While many headteachers retain a sense of professional responsibility to collaborate for the good of all children in an area, others embrace, or feel the pressure of, increased local competition. In addition, although balanced intakes are not incompatible with parental choice they run counter to what many parents currently want – a school close by with children from families like theirs.

Little to distinguish main parties

The difficulty of making admissions fairer is illustrated by the positions of the main parties. Both Labour and the Conservatives are committed to enhanced parental choice and diversity as part of market-led reform and there is currently little that distinguishes their approach to education and admissions policy.

For example, both are in favour of academisation and while the Conservatives toy with the idea of more grammar schools, Labour strives to let sleeping dogs lie and so supports selection continuing in many areas.

The policy debate about education has, over the past 30 years, been one-dimensional and deeply impoverished. It has been left to academics, practitioners and grassroots representatives to present evidence of failings and to pose real alternatives to the status quo. But these have been studiously ignored by politicians.

How children get allocated to schools is an aspect of the role that schooling plays in our society. Admissions policy influences, and will be influenced by, wider moral and political considerations. We urgently need a high quality public debate about the different purposes of education, and the role of admissions to achieve them, that is more open and imaginative than it has been over the past 30 years.