SMF Briefing: Choosing to succeed – Do parents pick the right schools?

Since the 1980s, the promotion of choice and competition has been a major strand of education reform in England.

The reforms are grounded in the idea that parents are looking for high-performing schools, therefore putting pressure on schools to raise standards. Drawing on new data from the Millennium Cohort Study, this briefing provides evidence that academic quality is far from the main driver in parental choice of schools.


  • More than four parents out of ten do not consider good results and academic reputation as an important factor in choosing a secondary school
  • Parents with lower levels of income and qualification are significantly less likely to give weight to academic performance than more affluent and educated parents.
  • Such differences in parental preferences for academic quality undermine the incentives for all schools to raise academic standards and may further reinforce differences in the composition of the student population and performance between schools.
  • We also speculate as to why less affluent and less educated parents make different choices; this may be to do with access to information, the time and opportunity to make use of it, or the idea that higher performing schools are for other peoples’ children.


  • We argue that further steps are needed to focus parental choice on academic performance and reduce the gap in aspiration. This briefing makes recommendations for improving access to high-quality information about schools; improving the design of admissions websites to urge parents to consider school quality; and giving priority to disadvantaged students in admission to high-performing schools.

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