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.
Today is “school league tables” day. Performance tables are released for schools and colleges in England, reporting a number of different measures of the exam performance of their students. While much attention this year will focus on the reporting of the new “English Baccalaureate”, we ask a more fundamental question: are school league tables in general any use to parents? One of the major aims for school league tables is to support and inform parents in choosing a school for their child: but are they fit for this purpose? The answer is “yes” – we show that using school league tables does help parents to identify the school in which their own specific child will do best in her future exams.
Parents consistently rank academic standards as being one of the most important criteria for choosing a school. The performance tables provide outcome measures that are very widely reported and easy to get hold of. The idea is that parents can scrutinise the results and weigh up the merits of the local schools, considering the academic performance, travel distance, the child’s own wishes and other factors before deciding which schools to write down on their application form.
But this idea has been subject to a number of critiques. There are three main lines of argument. First, it is argued that differences in raw exam performance largely reflect differences in school composition; they do not reflect teaching quality and so are not informative about how one particular child might do at a school. Second, schools might be differentially effective so that even measures of average teaching quality or test score gains may be misleading for students at either end of the ability distribution. Different school practices and resources might be more important for gifted students or others for low ability. Third, it is argued that the scores reported in performance tables are so variable over time that they cannot be reliably used to predict a student’s future performance. After all, today’s league tables reflect last year’s students’ exams, but a parent wants to know how her child will do in five years time.
It is an empirical question how quantitatively important these points are: are league tables helpful or not? The question on academic standards that parents want answered is: “In which feasible choice school will my child achieve the highest exam score?”. We argue that the best content for school performance tables is the statistic that best answers this question.
To answer this question, we use the long run of pupil data now available to researchers. We can follow students through their years at secondary school and see how they did in the exams at the end; that is standard. But we can also use statistical procedures (details) to estimate the counter-factuals of how that student would have done if s/he had gone to a different local school. We can then ask: if families had picked schools according to the league table information available at the time, would that have turned out to have been a good choice in terms of subsequent exam performance for that specific child? Focussing on the simplest measure of the school’s %5A*-C score, the results show that while it certainly does not produce a good choice for everyone, it produces a good choice for twice as many students than it produces a poor choice for. So on average, a family using the schools’ %5A*-C scores from the league tables to help identify a school that would be good academically for their child will do much better than the same family ignoring the league table information.
So are the league tables useful for parents? Definitely. Can they be improved? Certainly. The measures included in the performance tables should be judged according to their functionality, relevance, and comprehensibility. The test of functionality is the analysis just described. A measure is relevant if it informs parents about the performance of children very similar to their own in ability and social characteristics. It is comprehensible if it is given to them in a metric that they can meaningfully interpret. In fact, none of the current leading performance measures score very well across our three criteria. We have proposed an alternative measure that performs better on these criteria. No measure can be perfect because there are important trade-offs between relevance, functionality and comprehensibility: the more disaggregate the form in which performance tables are provided (increased relevance), the less precision they will have (decreased functionality). The more factors are taken into account in describing school performance for one specific child (increased relevance), the more complex the reported measure will be (decreased comprehensibility). Any choice on the content of league table information has to make decisions on these trade-offs.