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“All we want is a good local school”

Rebecca Allen and Simon Burgess

Two articles in the Times Education Supplement (TES) last Friday nicely illustrate the debate on school choice and school competition.

The first reports results from the British Social Attitudes Survey (BSAS), citing research by Sonia Exley, at the LSE, showing that most respondents thought that school choice was not a priority.

A familiar refrain in the school choice debate is that “all we want is a good local school”. There should be little doubt that this is indeed what most parents do want. We have used data from the Millennium Cohort Study to estimate the relative weights that parents place on the characteristics of primary schools. Unsurprisingly, school academic quality is positively valued, and distance between home and school is highly negatively valued. This makes a lot of sense: many parents have to make this journey four times a day. So, yes, people, do want a good local school.

But where does this take us? It is often said to imply that school choice is a distraction, an irrelevance. There is a side issue of whether choice is a good thing per se, as opposed to being functionally good. This is the thrust of the point above, that choice itself was not a priority, though the study also reports that 68% agreed that parents should have a basic right to choose their child’s school. Choice per se may become valuable once contrasted with the alternative of no choice.

But the main issue should be whether using school choice is a better way to allocate children to schools than alternatives. One alternative is implicit in the statement – children should go to their local school. In fact this gets a lot of support in the survey: the TES reports that 85% of respondents in the BSAS believe parents “should send their children to their local school”.

This idea would work well if families were not permitted to move house after the school admissions rule was changed. It is surely obvious why. We know that parents care a great deal about the school their child goes to. If the school allocation rule was simply “you will attend your local school”, then parents who were able to would ensure that their local school was the one they wanted by moving house.

It is quite possible that this would in fact lead to no less social segregation in schools, and almost certainly greater social segregation by neighbourhoods. While we found the relationship between school quality and moving house to be weaker than many might expect, this would undoubtedly be stronger in a world where your residence determined your school. It also does not do away with the concern about having to actually exercise a choice – it simply transfers it to a choice of neighbourhood and school combined.

So neighbourhood-based schooling would be very unlikely to resolve the issues of social segregation and choice-angst associated with choice-based schooling. It would also hand each school a local monopoly and, in the case of poorer families at least, a captive audience with no escape.

This connects to the second TES article, a leader on school competition. As the article notes, “Few things exercise critics of education policy more than the spectre of increased competition in our school system.” The argument balances the “un-school”-like, unorganised, chaotic and generally messy nature of competition with the potential for this to improve outcomes for students.

In fact, there is some evidence on this trade-off and what the net result of competition is (the article is mostly about competition for 6th form entrants and allegations of mis-information, but the available evidence is about compulsory schooling).  While the international evidence is mixed, the UK evidence suggests that there is at the very best a weak and small positive effect of competition on student outcomes; a review is here. The interesting question is why competition doesn’t appear to do much. The answer appears to lie in market failures in the schools market. If these could be addressed, it may be that a competitive threat might do more to raise standards in poorly performing schools.

Much of the furore about school ‘choice’ or ‘competition’ is misplaced. It is not choice between schools per se, relative to other allocation rules, that causes the perceived unfairness. The focus for objections should be the way that places in over-subscribed schools are allocated. The proximity criterion – who lives closest gets in – is operated in almost every non-selective school. This directly relates the chances of getting in to the most popular schools to family income, damaging social mobility in a very clear way. If some or all places at an over-subscribed school were filled by a random ballot, then school choice would seem a very different beast.

Finally, the competition article talks of ruined lives: “If no authority oversees admissions, plots likely pupil numbers or configures special needs support, the results won’t just be missed targets or dicey operating margins, but ruined, real pupil lives.” It is also true that that poor communities trapped with low-performing schools ruins lives, that unaccountable and coasting schools also ruin lives. The debate is about how best to avoid ruined lives, not whether or not they should be ruined.

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