Making school choice work for disadvantaged children

Listen to the interview

Following on from the recent debates about education reform, Simon Burgess, Professor of Economics and Director of the Centre for Market and Public Organisation (CMPO), at the University of Bristol discusses school choice.

What should school reform be for?

· Raising standards is one obvious response. In England, this seems to be a particular problem at the lower end of the achievement scale, with large numbers of people leaving school with no qualifications.

· Another response is that it should be targeted at giving children from poorer families a better deal in the education system.

Either way, the focus of reform should be on lower-achieving pupils.

This is a matter of equal opportunities: policy should aim to reduce the link between a child’s family income and the quality of the school s/he attends. Currently, this link is all too apparent.

Where do disadvantaged children currently go to school?

Our research provides some new evidence on this. We take all state secondary school children in England, and look at children who live somewhere equidistant between a good school and an average or low-scoring school. We find that:

· Taking account of the children’s scores in key stage tests and their gender and ethnicity, children who are eligible for free school meals are around 40% less likely to go to the good school than are their better-off peers.

· So despite being the same distance from both schools and having the same test score history, something in the way the system works is creating a systematic tendency for poorer children to go to the less good school.

· Furthermore, if we look at children who live in essentially the same place (the same postcode) again comparing similar children, those from poorer families go to lower-performing schools.

· Of course, this is all on top of the fact that more affluent children are much more likely to live near good schools in the first place.

This evidence suggests that children from poorer families are not getting a good deal from the English school system.

How should school places be allocated?

Part of the hope for reformed school choice is that it is one way to reduce the importance of income in the allocation of school places. It certainly should produce an outcome less dependent on family circumstances compared with the alternatives:

· Selection: assigning children to schools on the basis of performance in a qualifying test (such as the 11+) opens a large role for a better-off family to pay for tutoring and so on.

· A good local school: a common alternative is neighbourhood schooling, the desired policy for many critics of school choice, where all children simply go to their nearest school. But this policy tends to produce highly segregated communities clustered around good schools, which makes it very difficult for children from poorer families to stand a chance of getting into a good school.

· Banding: this is another popular idea local rules force each school to take a certain fraction from different ability bands. While this may work well in small markets such as London LEAs, in large urban or mixed LEAs, it is likely that a child’s address will continue to play a substantial role in allocating school places.

· Ballots: the most radical policy would be to hold ballots for places in over-subscribed schools. This would obviously ensure that all applicants faced an equal chance of getting a place. The Select Committee recommended that this strategy be investigated.

Can competition raise standards?

Of course, the school choice agenda is broader than this: the central idea is that competitive pressures applied to schools that are vulnerable to losing more mobile pupils will raise standards everywhere.

There is strong evidence that this matters in the United States, but mixed evidence for England. If the reforms do have more effect on low-achieving pupils, then it could be the low-scoring schools that feel vulnerable to this pressure.

A new world of choice or a new kind of choice?

One big misconception in the current debate seems to be that we currently have a system where most children attend their nearest secondary school, and that the proposed reforms will move us into a new world of choice. This is not the case: the current system is largely one of choice, but with two major drawbacks:

· First, the capacity to exercise and implement choice differs between people choice is not available to all.

· Second, popular schools do not have sufficient flexibility to be able to expand. In this case choice reverses, and it is schools that do the choosing.

But school choice is feasible for most secondary school pupils in England, in the straightforward sense that they have more than one school near to where they live. In fact, over 80% have at least three schools within 5 kilometres.

Obviously, this varies over the country. In rural areas, the numbers are lower (but still around 40% have at least three schools within 5 kilometres) and in London, almost all pupils do. Put another way, three quarters of all secondary school pupils have at least three secondary schools within 4 kilometres of their home.

The evidence also suggests that we are a long way from a cosy world where most children attend their local school. In fact, only a half of all secondary school pupils in England attend their nearest school. One in two pupils are not going to their default school so we are already in a world with a lot of choice.

It is important to see that not all of this movement away from the local school is choice in the sense of consumer choice with a desired outcome. The school system has been more-or-less a closed system: roughly speaking, there are as many school places as children and each school can neither expand nor contract very rapidly (though there are excess places in some areas and schools can change size).

A useful analogy for the system is a modified game of musical chairs: there are enough chairs for everyone, but some are more desirable than others. The point is that one person’s choice of chair has implications for the places available to others. Unlike in most situations of consumer choice, choice by one person has spillover effects on others. The issue for reform is how things look when the game finishes which pupils are going to which schools.

What are the effects of our current, pre-reform system of partial choice?

Our research shows that areas of the country with greater school choice are also areas with stronger sorting of pupils. This takes account of the sorting of where people live. So over and above the fact that rich and poor tend to live in different places, we see that unequal choice tends to increase segregation in schools. This is true both in terms of ability sorting, and in terms of not producing an even social mix in schools.

Two things need to change to allow reformed choice to work better for disadvantaged pupils:

· First, much needs to be done to facilitate more active school choice by poorer families. This involves subsidising transport costs over a wider range, and providing informational support for the choices.

· Second, popular schools need greater flexibility to expand.

Will popular schools really expand?

The latter is perhaps the greatest issue. Once a popular school has to ration places, it seems likely that distance from the school will again be used to make the cut. So the aim of de-coupling family background from quality of school attended requires either ballots for places or a capacity and willingness to expand popular schools.

This greater freedom is part of what is embodied in trust status for schools. But the freedoms could also give greater scope for selection by ability, responding to incentives in the school system. This obviously works directly against a better deal for children from poorer families, and the Select Committee’s proposals to strengthen and monitor the code are very important.

But there may be another problem: giving popular schools the freedom to expand does not mean they will do so. To the extent that a school’s position in the league tables depends on the attainment of its intake, schools may be unwilling to increase and potentially to dilute the quality of their student body.

At the root of this is the question what makes a good school good? If it is mostly attributes that can be readily extended (such as leadership and ethos), then increasing entry should not be a major problem; if it is attributes inherent in the intake (such as the ability of peer groups) then this policy is more problematic.


Making school choice work for disadvantaged children is a commentary piece by Simon Burgess of the Centre for Market and Public Organisation at the University of Bristol.

Related information

You can find other publications by from this research centre, related research and citations from IDEAS and you can search for more Internet resources on the topic of Educational Policy on SOSIG.

Economics in Action is a collaboration between the Royal Economic Society, the Economics Network of the Higher Education Academy and SOSIG, the Social Science Information Gateway. It forms part of the Why Study Economics initiative.

One Response to “Making school choice work for disadvantaged children”

  1. Anka Says:

    I totally agree, i can’t understand why people haven’t thought of this before!

Leave a Reply