The UK’s devolved administrations have opted for divergent approaches when it comes to allowing parents to choose their child’s school. But what is the impact of allowing or restricting this parental choice? Aveek Bhattacharya looks at how it affects outcomes for schoolchildren as well as the broader consequences for the cohesiveness of the UK’s social fabric.
An under-utilised benefit of the UK’s devolved political system is the ability to learn from policy experiments pursued in one part of the country but not another. For example, England and Scotland have taken quite different approaches to school choice over the last 35 years. Whereas policymakers in England have promoted and encouraged parents’ ability to choose a school for their children, their Scottish counterparts have tended to play it down. English families are all required to make an explicit choice, ranking up to six schools, whereas Scottish families are allocated to their catchment school by default and have to “opt in” to a different choice by applying to an alternative. As a result, around half of English children do not attend their nearest secondary school, compared to one in eight North of the border.
That policy divergence was something I explored in my own PhD research, which found that English parents feel paradoxically less empowered and more stressed as a result of having to make these choices. It is also the subject of a recent Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) paper exploring the impact of these different systems on neighbourhood and school segregation.
The debate around school choice
Allocating school places according to where people live has major drawbacks. It encourages more affluent families to buy up more expensive houses near the most desirable schools. Sure enough, the IFS find that residential segregation is marginally higher in Scotland than in England – as is the premium on house prices near top-performing schools. The difference isn’t very big, however: the index of dissimilarity (which represents how many people would have to move to achieve an equal income distribution across neighbourhoods) is 31 per cent in Scotland, compared to 29 per cent South of the border.
Proponents of school choice hope that it can mitigate this segregation, giving poorer families a chance to access the same institutions as their well-heeled counterparts. Yet in practice, middle class parents tend to be more capable at navigating the system, and there is a tendency across society for people to try to stick with people like themselves. So even though Scotland has slightly more segregated neighbourhoods, English schools are significantly more divided by income: they have an index of dissimilarity of 22 per cent for children on free school meals, compared to 17 per cent in Scotland.
In practice, middle class parents tend to be more capable at navigating the system, and there is a tendency across society for people to try to stick with people like themselves.
This finding fits with previous evidence from the UK and abroad. One study found that while most of the segregation by income in English schools is due to residential segregation, choice makes things worse, and segregation is higher than if children were allocated to their nearest school. Analyses of school choice policies in Australia, Chile, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Spain, Sweden and the US have all concluded choice increases inter-school segregation.
Assessing the impact on schoolchildren
Does this matter? Being cut off from more advantaged peers might be bad for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, if it means they receive worse teaching or if they suffer from being surrounded by disruptive or less ambitious students. Yet there is little evidence to suggest that disadvantaged English students do worse than disadvantaged Scottish students. Indeed the IFS paper finds that English schools with a high share of students on free school meals are more likely to do well academically than their equivalents North of the border (though this is due to the remarkable performance of London schools, rather than choice). More generally, the overall impact of school choice on educational outcomes seems to be modest, but not negative.
The most significant costs of segregation may be less tangible. Beyond the impact on their grades, disadvantaged children may miss out on role models and connections that they would pick up through encounters with people from different backgrounds, limiting their economic prospects in the long run. More fundamentally, social segregation undermines our ability to understand and relate to one another. That harms democracy and institutions – for example, if those in power have had little exposure to those whose lives they govern. It reduces societal trust – those from the other side of the tracks are seen as alien “others” to be feared, which heightens perceived insecurity and makes it harder to cooperate socially or economically – which is a strong predictor of economic prosperity.
How to break down the barriers
Reducing segregation in our schools does not seem to be much of a political priority on either side of the border. The policy analyst Jon Yates published a book, Fractured, a couple of years ago that argued that addressing social divides should be higher up the agenda. Yet even Yates takes the demand for school choice as an inevitable and irresistible force pushing different types of families apart.
Even if England retains choice, the criteria by which schools allocate oversubscribed places could be altered to ensure more socially balanced intakes.
Such fatalism is a mistake. Scotland has resisted school choice. New Zealand reversed it, reintroducing catchment areas after abolishing them. Even if England retains choice, the criteria by which schools allocate oversubscribed places could be altered to ensure more socially balanced intakes. Equally, if Scotland really wanted to address segregation it could redraw school catchments to alter their social composition, as some parts of Denmark have done.
Other countries at other times have seen segregation as a fundamental threat to their values. Fear of ethnic conflict led Singapore to forcibly integrate its schools. The civil rights movement led the US government to put children on buses and send them to different school districts to overcome the legacy of separate Black and White schools. When the differences we are trying to overcome are less immediately visible gaps in income and class, the issue seems to be less urgent.
Keir Starmer, who may soon be responsible for the English school system, has emphasised the importance of “respect” to his political agenda – avoiding people being looked down on because of their background. A lack of contact between the better and worse off in our society is a major obstacle to that objective. If he wants to do something about it, he could do worse than addressing educational segregation.
All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE. British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.
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