School choice, and why some parents will always be in the wrong

In some areas of England this year, as many as 17% of children failed to get into their first choice of school. This post looks at the relationship between school choice and government policy, and why some children will never really be able to succeed within our system.

First of all, we need to look at links between New Labour and the Conservative party. There are lots of policies that cross over from New Labour to Conservative territory, for example, policies such as welfare-to-work and extended schooling are very much in this vein.  This tendency to carry on with policies originating from other regimes continues in the Conservatives’ support for the Schools Admissions Code introduced by Labour in 2007, and it’s this that underpins the school admissions procedures in use today.

There is an interesting background to this Code. It was the Conservative Party that was originally responsible for the introduction of open enrolment as one of the main features of the 1988 Education Reform Act. This meant that catchment areas for schools were abolished (even though people still talk about then today), and in principle at least, parents were able to send their children to school wherever they considered best. The idea behind this was to encourage a form of marketisation in which parental choice dominated, and which was supposed to result in poorer schools being forced to close through lack of funding, while better schools would be encouraged to prosper. However the reality was that good schools were not able to expand endlessly, and consequently parents did not always feel that they had the level of choice that they had been encouraged to consider their right. Socially deprived pupils also fared badly in this system, being many times more likely to end up at lower achieving community schools, as Geoff Whitty and I wrote in a book chapter we published in 2007. So you could argue that the introduction of marketisation has had seriously negative consequences for social justice.

Yet parental choice policies of this kind assume that individuals are rational actors, as economists might call them, able to negotiate a complex system of public sector provision to their advantage. To an extent this can be the case, if families live in an area where there is more than one school nearby, and if they have the financial means to exercise choice to its fullest extent. However it is clear that this is not always so. Abuses to the system give us a useful indication of the relevant policy fault lines. For example, there is growing evidence that some parents pretend to live in different areas to ensure prioritisation for particularly popular schools. If caught, this can result in penalties, such as the withdrawing of offers of places. Whilst this practice is considered to be dishonest, on a purely sociological level, it could be argued that cheating to get a place for your child in a good school could be seen as an entirely logical response to a flawed Government policy.

On the one hand, parents are being encouraged to choose particular educational avenues for their children. On the other hand they are penalised for taking advantage of the very policies that were seeking to promote parental autonomy and choice. This paradox leaves politicians in a difficult position. Do you continue to promote a rational actor model of public policy, providing incentives for certain behaviours (for example places in good schools), or do you simply penalise deviance from an accepted norm (in this case, cheating to ensure the desired outcome of a good school place)? How far should you go in encouraging compliance with the notion of choice whilst at the same time forcing compliance with the law? At what point should it be considered that citizens have gone too far in embracing current education policy at all costs? Should there be serious negative consequences, such as criminalisation?

Despite the introduction of Free Schools and new Academies, the matter of competition for school places seems to remain unresolved in current Conservative documents and speeches, suggesting that the current ideological impasse is likely to continue. Meanwhile, the system will help some children and not others, and many parents will continue to find it hard to do the right thing.

Image: anankkml / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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