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.
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.
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?
The quality of debate about grammar schools is poor. Most commentators’ opinions on the matter seem to consist of arguing ‘I went to a grammar school and I did well out of it. Now I am forced to pay for my son/daughter to go through private education’.
There are two problems with this argument. First, it represents a sample size of one, from which we can infer little about the effects of selection in society as a whole. Two, journalists are unable to describe the effects of their having attended a grammar school relative to the counterfactual – in our case this would be attending a comprehensive in a non-selective system. It’s not surprising they are unable to do this – our school experience makes up such an important part of our self-image. However, it is necessary we make these comparisons to understand what difference a selective education system could make to our country.
This piece provides an overview of several pieces of work on the themes of secondary school admissions policies and processes, the social and religious composition of schools, and social segregation across schools. It is important to note that the research used data obtained prior to the 2006 Education and Inspections Act and the 2007 School Admissions Code.
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.
If schools are socially segregated it means children from low income families are concentrated in one or two schools in an area, thus being separated from more affluent pupils who tend to be concentrated in other schools. Academic research measuring levels of social segregation in English schools has generally focused on the unevenness in the distribution of pupils who are eligible for free school meals (FSM), using this as a proxy for social disadvantage. Where FSM pupils are evenly distributed across schools in an area so that each school has exactly the same proportion of its pupils eligible for FSM, i.e. its ‘fair share’, we can say that there is zero segregation.
School choice researchers in England were concerned that the policies of 1988 onwards would give schools both the motivation and the means to select the most able and avoid admitting educationally disadvantaged pupils to their schools, thus producing socially divided schooling. As a society we should be concerned about socially divided schooling because it is likely to increase inequalities in academic achievement and threaten social cohesion.