School Choice Increases the Social Divide in Education

A major new study of school choice in England has found that it compounds the social divide in education. Whilst parents do not admit to choosing schools on the basis of their social composition, this happens in practice.

The study compared the stated preferences of families with the actual school choices they made. It found that parents of different socio-economic status (SES) give different reasons for choosing schools and these serve in practice to sort children between schools according to social background.

More educated, higher SES parents are more likely to cite academic standards as the main reason for school choice, whilst less educated and lower SES parents are more likely to cite proximity of a school to home and ease of travel.

The choices actually made by high SES families tend to be schools ranked more highly in academic quality and with lower proportions of disadvantaged students. Conversely, low SES families are less likely to apply for socially advantaged schools and are more likely to choose schools with lower academic performance and higher proportions of students eligible for free school meals.

Thus, the practice of school choice leads to social segregation in schools. One of the main authors of the study, Anna Vignoles, Professor of the Economics of Education at the Institute of Education at the University of London, said the findings showed parental choice tended to lead to greater class segregation in schools.

The study was based on an analysis of survey data from nearly 12 000 parents. Its approach of comparing stated preferences of families with the actual choices made was designed to overcome possible biases from relying on families’ stated reasons for choice of school. What parents feel comfortable admitting as the reasons for their school choice may not match their real motivations, as revealed by their actual choice of school.

Reasons for choosing schools differ according social background

Proximity and/or ease of travel to school were most frequently cited as the most important reason for choice of schools. About 25% of all parents cited this as the most important factor while a similar proportion stated that a sibling already attending the school was most important. Around 16% of parents said that academic standards are the most important consideration, and about the same proportion cited a ‘general good impression’. Very low proportions of parents cited other reasons as the ‘most important’ in their choice of first preference school.

However, there were significant differences in the reasons stated by parents from different social backgrounds. Those with no education or training qualifications were almost twice as likely to give proximity as their most important reason as compared to those with at least a degree or equivalent qualification. Some 40% of those with no educational or vocational qualifications gave proximity as the main reason compared to only 20% of those with at least a degree.

In contrast, parents with degrees were over twice as likely to cite academic standards and a ‘general good impression’ as the most important reason. Twenty per cent of those with at least a degree cited academic standards as the main reason and 23% cited the good impression reason. The respective percentages for those with no qualifications were 8 and 9%.

A similar pattern existed between parents with low and high SES. Nearly one-third of those in the lowest SES quintile gave proximity to home and ease of travel as the most important factor, compared to 18% of those in the highest quintile citing this reason. High SES parents were more likely to cite academic standards and a ‘general good impression’ of the school as the most important reason. Some 22% cited academic standards as the most important factor compared to 10% of families from the lowest SES quintile and 23% cited a ‘good impression’ compared to 12% of low SES parents.

Academic standards were cited as the main reason for school choice only for higher SES parents. Proximity to school and ease of travel was stated as the main reason by a much larger proportion of parents in each of the three lowest SES quintiles than those who cited academic standards. The percentages were similar for the 4th quintile and only in the case of the highest quintile did the proportion of parents who cited academic standards as the main reason exceed those who cited proximity and ease of travel.

These findings confirm those of a large number of studies in England and the United States which show significant class and race differences in the school preferences of parents.

Actual school choices differ according to social background

The special contribution of this study to the literature is that it compares these stated preferences with the actual choices parents made. It investigated the extent to which parents tend to choose schools which perform better than others in their area in terms of academic achievement compared to social and/or ethnic composition, and how these choices vary according to parent background.

On average, higher SES parents choose a better performing school relative to others in their choice set, particularly in areas with many schools and therefore a lot of potential school choice. These parents are also likely to choose schools with much lower proportions of pupils eligible for free school meals relative to other schools available to them. In contrast, low SES parents tend to choose lower performing schools.

It is apparent that low SES parents face constrained choices. The study shows that schools feasibly available to parents in the lowest SES quintile have a much higher average proportion of students eligible for free school meals (22%) compared to those available to families in the highest SES quintile (11%). Schools feasibly available for low SES parents are also less ‘white’, have more students with English as a second language, have more students with special education needs and have lower proportions of high attaining students.

There is also evidence of discrimination against low SES parents in admissions to high demand schools in England. The study shows that low SES parents choose high demand schools in their area appear to have lower success rates in admission than high SES parents. It found that 20% of low SES parents that choose the school ranked most highly in terms of academic achievement are not admitted compared with 9% of those in the highest SES quintile.

Study findings invalidate the case that school choice improves student achievement

The study’s findings have profound implications for the case that school choice will improve student and school performance. They demonstrate that the assumptions underpinning this argument are invalid.

A key argument for school choice is that it will cause schools to compete with one another to improve student achievement. However, it assumes that all parents choose schools primarily on the basis of academic achievement rather than other reasons such as proximity to home. The study shows that this assumption is invalid.

It is particularly significant that academic performance was the main factor in the school choice of only parents in the highest SES quintile. Proximity and ease of travel was the main factor in school choice for a larger proportion of parents in all the other SES quintiles than academic standards.

The basic premise underlying the theory of school choice is thus flawed. This helps account for the conclusions of many research studies that greater school choice does not lead to increased student achievement or better average school results.

The study has similar implications for the case that reporting school results will serve to encourage schools to compete with each other to improve student achievement. It too depends on the invalid assumption that all parents choose schools on the basis of academic standards.

School choice leads to greater social polarisation

The study adds to the growing list of research studies which show that school choice leads to greater social segregation between schools. This is a major challenge for public education systems around the world because it exacerbates inequity in education and has significant implications for the kind of society we live in.

Many studies show that increased social segregation in schooling increases disparities between schools in student learning needs and the real resources available to meet those needs. Generally, the resources available to low SES schools are not commensurate with the problems they face because they are largely funded on the same per capita basis as other schools, despite their higher levels of learning need. Low SES schools also often have less qualified, less experienced teachers, and high staff turnover which makes it more difficult to address high levels of learning and other needs.

Increasing social segregation tends to reduce average student achievement. Studies show that a student attending a school where the average SES of the student body is low is likely to have lower outcomes than a student from a similar background attending a school where the average SES of the student body is high. There is a “double jeopardy” effect for students from low SES and minority families in that they tend to be disadvantaged because of their circumstances at home, but when they are also segregated into low SES and/or predominantly minority schools they are likely to fare even worse.

Increasing social segregation in schooling is also socially divisive as it undermines social understanding and tolerance between different social groups. Schools segregated by class, religion and race make it more difficult for children to develop a real understanding of people of different backgrounds and to break down barriers of social intolerance. This is a key purpose of public education. Socially segregated schools can feed a lack of social empathy, indeed, social intolerance and an inability of people from different backgrounds to effectively work together and live together.

Increasing school choice is thus incompatible with reducing inequity in education. Governments cannot focus on increasing choice and expect to reduce inequity in education. They have to give priority to improving equity.

Trevor Cobbold

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