School choice: Making it work for the poorest doesn’t undermine good schools

There’s an inspiring, and at times frustrating, attitude of piety in many discussions of education policy.

For example, if you advocate anything to support the most talented pupils, there will be many who, with force, will say that the point of the education system is to help everyone, not only a minority, reach their potential. Yet supporting the most talented isn’t logically inconsistent with that wider aim.

Today we’ve published new research on school choice, covered in today’s edition of The Times. Our conclusion is that it’s not working to the benefit of poorer families. We recommend that there should be a proportion of places reserved for them in outstanding schools. The ‘Thunderer’ in today’s Times remarks, in response to our research, that instead of distributing this limited number of good school places, the focus should be on creating more good school places. Again my response is the same: education policy should be able to focus on more than one aim at the same time.

There are two wider issues behind our recommendation. The first is that on analysing how parents make school choice, we find that poorer parents and those with lower qualifications are less likely to consider academic performance. We suggest some measures to improve the provision and salience of information about academic performance to change this. If we want school choice to be a mechanism to drive up school quality then parents do have to be choosing at least in some large part on the basis of performance.

But then our finding begs a second question: is it possible that poorer families don’t pick the best schools because they don’t think their kids will get in? These schools will typically be over-subscribed which means that proximity to the school is likely to be the tie breaker for determining admission; and other work has shown for example that there is a large house price premium – disadvantaging poorer families – operating around the best schools. In this context admissions policy itself needs to change or the benefits of the best schools will continue to be distributed unequally. This is why we propose a quota. It doesn’t exclude richer families from these schools, far from it, it only diminishes their dominance. In the end, we’re not social engineers, we’re market liberals just like the staff at The Times.

Today’s Thunderer does make one powerful point, that ‘parent power’ – and the piece suggests it is the richer families who have more of this – can help to make schools better and we should celebrate its effect. I agree with that and suggest that our proposal puts it to precisely the use that the Thunderer wants. In other words, if as a consequence of a quota that boosts the number of poorer pupils in outstanding schools, a few more richer pupils end up in schools that are merely ‘good’, then their parents will combine won’t they to improve those schools. On our proposal, this parent power too will be distributed more equally.


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