Headteacher David Dixon considers the inequalities of the schools admissions system, including negative effects on social cohesion and the ability of some schools to raise achievement and attainment.

First published in November 2005

In recent years there has been increasing concern about the ‘postcode’ factor associated with school admissions. Estate agents have long been tuned into this because of its effect on the housing market. This is when perceived ‘good schools’ have added a premium to property prices within their catchment areas.

Of course this is all in line with market forces which the present and previous government have actively encouraged. After all, as the argument goes, it is the market imperative that has enabled the UK’s economy to grow faster and with less inhibition than many of our European neighbours. It is the glorious Anglo-Saxon model, much despised by the likes of the French, that has delivered the prosperity, part of which has been ploughed back into public services. This can be seen in the numerous new schools and hospital builds around the country and the employment of more teachers, doctors, nurses and police.

Although the education service is mainly supplied by the state through taxes, the arrival of Local Management of Schools (LMS) in the late 1980s plunged this service into what has been termed a ‘quasi-market’ – ie a ring-fenced market which has various controls and which is not literally a free for all. The health service is another example of this.

However, as all headteachers know, this quasi-market still has an element of ‘law of the jungle’ just because each child attracts money for a school budget and without ‘bums on seats’, schools are soon in financial trouble. This is where the competition factor between schools kicks in and where partnership between neighbouring schools can be problematic.

With the best will in the world if the school up the road benefits more than yours due to ‘partnership working’, then, as a headteacher, you will think twice next time. The ‘bums on seats’ is also part of the admissions issue as increasingly schools have to market themselves to be sustainable and where the criteria for admissions can be used to attract, then filter the sort of child favoured by the school. Any school not successful in this respect will inevitably be left with children who are not part of the ‘system of choice’ and have disproportionately higher rates of academic and/or behavioural difficulties.

A widening gap

All this has deleterious effects on social cohesion and the ability of some schools to raise achievement and attainment. Although the prosperity of most people has risen, the gap between rich and poor has widened. This gap has also manifested itself in the school system, whereby to an increasing extent where you live will determine the type and quality of school your children will attend. Added to this, the capacity of certain families to travel means that, even if their local postcode does not deliver a ‘good school’, then a taxi, bus or MPV ride each day will deliver the child to a more distant one. It was anticipated that the recent education white paper would address some of these issues by requiring secondary schools to have ability bands which would ensure that no school would have undiluted academically able or academically poor cohorts. This part of the paper was subtly dropped, although there are safeguards which put limits on the numbers of children who can be selected by test or interview. But will this address the postcode factor? I very much doubt it and this view is backed up by research into parent choice.

Ron Glatter, who directed the Parental and School Choice Interaction (PASCI) study in 1995, identified the highly complex nature of parental choice. However, there were some categories of choice that stood out. These included those of ‘process’ and ‘product’. Process referred to child-centred aspects of school, ie how the school treated the children, and product referred to what the children achieved in terms of academic success. Process was also linked to school uniformity and product to diversity. This partly explained why ‘successful’ ie over-subscribed schools used product for marketing purposes more than process and these schools were the ones touting business from the parents who were overtly seeking academic success for their children.

Glatter also highlighted the fact that local geographical and historical factors had a major influence on choice for the simple reason that the availability of choice varies so much between areas. However, despite these factors, the notion that ‘better off’ parents have more choice and pursue more choice still pertains.

System of ranking

An OECD report (1994:65) says that in the UK there is a:‘National habit of ranking educational alternatives rather than seeing them as being of possible equal value’.

This habit seems to have dogged the UK, and more especially the English education system, from time immemorial. The ‘tripartite system’ set up under the 1944 Act spoke of ‘parity of esteem’ between grammar, secondary modern and technical schools. This was echoed 50 years later in the DfE/Welsh Office (1994, para.1:49) which states: ‘The government wants to ensure that there are no tiers of schools within the maintained system, but rather parity of esteem between different schools, in order to offer parents a wealth of choice.’

Although the above statement is laudable, it can be argued that the rhetoric was no nearer to reality than it was in 1944. This has been explained by Ranson (1994, p40) in the following terms: ‘It is likely… that privileged producers and consumers will continue to search each other out in a progressive segmentation of the market.’

In other words, it can be said that an entrenched class system has led to a very uneven playing field when it comes to educational choice. To take school metaphors further, there has never been a time when the slate has been rubbed clean, allowing many choices between schools of perceived equivalent quality, offering different opportunities which are equally valued by all. As Ball (1993, p3) argues: ‘Markets in education provide the possibility for the pursuit of class advantage and generate a differentiated and stratified system of schooling’.

Hirschman (1970) talked about how public services can be ‘lazy monopolies’: ‘An oppression of the weak by the incompetent and an exploitation of the poor by the lazy, which is the more durable and stifling as it is both unambitious and inescapable’.

He spoke of ‘exit’ (what the better off can do to escape poor public services) and ‘voice’ (this would be weak for the less well off because they had nowhere else to go). Hirschman (ibid., p79) also described the ‘functionality of loyalty’ because: ‘It can neutralise… the tendency of the most quality conscious customers or members to be the first to exit… in the hope or, rather the expectation that improvement or reform can be achieved “from within”. Thus loyalty, from being irrational, can serve the socially useful purpose of preventing deterioration from becoming cumulative, as it so often does when there is no barrier to exit’.

All this is saying that it is very damaging to have middle class parents voting with their feet because they are the ones in situ who can most effectively lobby for better schools.

The USA experience

Bettinger (2001, p365) says that the most heated debate on all these issues seems to emanate from the USA, where individual states and districts have implemented very deregulated education markets. Many of these schemes have been challenged in the supreme court due to the 19th century ‘Blaine Amendment’ which forbade taxpayers’ money from being used by denominational schools (the very schools who are now the most keen to ‘go it alone’).

Despite the advocacy of a simplistic ‘free market’ model, the literature quoted below suggests that ‘raw choice’ of schooling is socially divisive (if not subversive) and that one needs to seek alternative models which take more fully into account the complexities. In a wide ranging review of education choice models in the USA, Glenn (2004) concluded: ‘The ultimate question is not whether we will have parents choosing schools or not, but within what sort of framework of policies and procedures those choices can best be structured so that individual hopes and concerns and the common social good can be best advanced.’

Levin & Riffel (1994, p44) also highlights the need to focus on wider societal issues rather than individual choice. ‘There is a fundamental and continuous tension between pressures towards, on the one hand, increasing the diversity of provision and on the other the desire to use schools to promote social cohesion… and… to avoid educational fragmentation, inconsistency and inequality’.

Lauder et al (1999) reviewed many case studies which looked at the effect of ‘marketisation’ on local schools. In general terms they found that the effect:‘Has been to exacerbate the polarisation in school intakes that already existed on the basis of residential segregation’. (p131)

Within this, they identified four mechanisms that mitigate against a ‘perfectly competitive’ market (paraphrased below p134).

  1. Choice in education markets is determined by social class, ethnicity and gender.
  2. Individuals do not have equal ability to compete in the market (due to 1.).
  3. Oversubscribed schools tend to select students who enhance their exam reputation.
  4. Schools will ‘off-load’ problematic students which has the effect of insulating themselves from the true effects of the market.

Nalaray Kirby & Darling-Hammond (1988) looked at a parent voucher system in Minnesota and concluded that it only served to reinforce existing choice options rather than creating new ones.

Unhealthy competition?

Throughout England bordering LEAs sometimes have different school systems which can end up in quite acrimonious rivalry. I looked at one such scenario. LEA ‘A’ has a fully comprehensive system whilst neighbouring LEA ‘B’ has a selective grammar school system and comprehensives which have ‘specialist status’. It is interesting to see how the schools in LEA ‘B’ market themselves more in terms of ‘product’ and have admission systems which favour more academic children. This has a detrimental effect on some of the LEA ‘A’ schools because there is a drift of more academic children to ‘B’ schools as middle class parents ‘exit’ the system.

All this has been exacerbated by a fall in birth rate in both LEAs which has fuelled the competitive market. Another advantage LEA ‘B’ schools had were that they were ex-grant maintained schools and had a lot of investment in facilities which made them even more attractive. Added to this, the government allows such ‘successful’ schools to expand their intakes. So, on one side of the border we have successful expanding schools attracting top-notch staff, resources and children, and on the other side we are into a spiral of decline for converse reasons.

At the end of the day we have to decide how all schools can be equitable without dumbing down so that children across the social stratification can mix and be successful learners. The recent white paper says it can address this by enhancing parental choice through allowing all schools to diversify and to become more autonomous. I think this is overtly optimistic due to the problems of achieving ‘parity of esteem’.

Perhaps a ‘back to the future’ approach is needed so that all ‘bog standard’ schools can be truly comprehensive and inclusive for all. Market forces work in industry because the strong survive and the weak go to the wall. If this continues to be the case for schools, further generations of children from poor families will be doomed to underachieve.

Contact: d.dixon@bowbridgeprimary.com

References Ball, S (1990) Politics and Policy Making in Education: Explorations in Policy Sociology. London: Routledge. Bettinger, EP (2001) Review of: When Schools Compete: A Cautionary Tale/Policy Entrepreneurs and School Choice, Journal of Policy Analysis & Management, Spring 2001, Vol. 20 (Iss.2) Department for Education/Welsh Office (1992) Choice and Diversity: A New Framework for Schools. London: HMSO. Glatter, R (1995) ‘Partnership in the Market Model: Is it Dying’ In: Macbeth, A et al (1995) Collaborate or Compete? Educational Partnerships in a Market Economy, London: Falmer. Glenn, CL (2004) The Debate Over Parent Choice of Schools, Journal of Education, Vol. 184 (No.1). Hirschman, AO (1970) Exit, Voice and Loyalty, Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press. Lauder, L, Hughes, D, et al.(1999), Trading in Futures Why Markets in Education Don’t Work, Buckingham: OU Press. Levin, B & Riffel, A ‘School System Responses To External Change Implications for Parental Choice of Schools’ In: Glatter, R, Woods, PA & Bagley, C (Eds) (1996) Choice and Diversity in Schooling Perspectives and Prospects. London: Routledge. Nalaray-Kirby, S & Darling Hammond, L (1988) Parental Schooling Choice: A Case Study of Minnesota, Journal of Policy Analysis & Management, Spring 1988, Vol. 7(Iss.3). OECD (1994) School: A Matter of Choice, Paris: Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI), Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development

Ranson, S (1994) Towards Education for Democracy, London: Institute of Public Policy Research in Glatter, R, Woods, PA & Bagley, C (Eds) Choice and Diversity in Schooling Perspectives and Prospects. London: Routledge.