“All we want is a good local school”

CMPO Viewpoint

Rebecca Allen and Simon Burgess

Twoarticles in the Times Education Supplement (TES) last Friday nicely illustrate the debate on school choice and school competition.

The first reports results from the British Social Attitudes Survey (BSAS), citing research by Sonia Exley, at the LSE, showing that most respondents thought that school choice was not a priority.

A familiar refrain in the school choice debate is that “all we want is a good local school”. There should be little doubt that this is indeed what most parents do want. We have used data from the Millennium Cohort Study to estimate the relative weights that parents place on the characteristics of primary schools. Unsurprisingly, school academic quality is positively valued, and distance between home and school is highly negatively valued. This makes a lot of sense: many parents have to make this journey four times a day. So, yes, people, do…

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What are Free Schools for?

CMPO Viewpoint

Rebecca Allen and Simon Burgess

As children start their lessons in the 24 Free Schools opening this week, a new experiment begins in English education. The founders and staff will have been working hard for this day over many months and no doubt all will wish the pupils and staff well. There has been a lot of politicalpassion on both sides of the debate, but what is the significance of the Free Schools experiment likely to be?

It is not an experiment because of the “free” part – Free schools will enjoy essentially the same freedoms as Academies do.  It is an experiment because now anyone can propose to set up a school, and attract the same per-pupil funding from the state as other local schools. Anyone can propose … but the vetting process to check whether the applicants are “fit and proper” to run a school is…

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Revising the Draft School Admissions Code

CMPO Viewpoint

Rebecca Allen and Simon Burgess

From next week, officials in the Department for Education are going to be busy sifting through responses to the consultation exercise around the new School Admissions Code.

Two important issues in the proposed code relate to the priority given to school staff, and to random allocation. We believe that as they currently stand, these provisions will set back the goals that the Government has set for its education policy.

1. Prioritising the children of staff

Paragraph  1.33 of the code says: “If admissions authorities decide to give priority to children of staff, they must set out clearly in their admission arrangements how they will define staff and on what basis children will be prioritised.”

This suggests that admissions authorities are to be allowed to prioritise the children of staff, reversing the policy of recent Admissions Codes.

One group very likely to be included in…

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Copying Swedish Free School Reforms

England’s schools are currently facing the prospect of the most radical reform since the dismantling of selective schooling four decades ago with the Conservatives looking to replicate Sweden’s free school reforms. The work of Swedish economists used to support the argument that choice and competition has improved academic performance, is however less unambiguous than the Conservative spokesman has claimed. Here I give a non-technical summary of the impact of the reforms on test scores, evaluating the relative merits of the papers and explaining why they disagree in their findings.

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School autonomy and pupil achievement

One of the stated policy motivations behind the move towards greater autonomy for schools from local authority control has been the claim that this is a route to improving academic standards. This might be through more efficient decision-making and resource usage or because autonomy is a necessary precursor to market-like reforms whereby schools are somehow incentivised to compete for pupils.

Schools with voluntary-aided and foundation status appear to do well in schools league tables including contextual value added calculations, but is it possible to causally attribute this to autonomous status? This causal relationship is difficult to establish because household factors such as parenting styles and household educational backgrounds affect both the likelihood of attending an autonomous school and the chances of achieving good GCSE exam results.

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School autonomy and social segregation

One major concern with policies that allow schools autonomy from local authority control is that they exacerbate inequalities in who gets to go to school where, i.e. pupils sorting or segregation. The extent to which pupils from low-income families are concentrated in certain schools can be indicative of inequalities in access to schools and the distribution of peer effects suggests it might exacerbate social class gaps in attainment. English secondary schools are moderately socially segregation by international standards (Jenkins et al., 2008) and this has changed little in the past two decades (Gorard et al., 2003; Allen and Vignoles, 2007; Gibbons and Telhaj, 2007). What are the sources of this segregation?

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Changes in school segregation in England

Measuring and trying to understand the reasons for changes in school segregation in England is central to the evaluation of policies designed to increase choice and competition both in and since the 1988 Education Reform Act. Many argued these policies would have unintended sorting consequences in terms of changes in the distribution of pupils from low income families across schools.

The central hypothesis is that greater school choice will lead to higher socio-economic status (SES) parents being more successful than those from lower socio-economic groups in choosing the higher performing schools, either because higher SES parents are more active in exercising choice or because some schools ‘cream-skim’ the higher ability and easier to teach pupils. This will cause these high performing schools to improve still further due to positive peer effects from their advantaged intake. This so called virtuous cycle would, it is suggested, lead to increasing polarisation between schools in terms of the ability and socio-economic background of their intakes.

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