Why are pupils from disadvantaged families more often found in poorly performing schools? Is it through choice (they prefer this type of school) or constraint (no other schools are available)? Is it because families choose local schools despite low performance? Or is it because the school admissions system, with its focus on proximity to school, works against poorer families?
A report by a team of researchers from the Centre for Market and Public Organisation (CMPO), the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) and Cambridge University shows that differences in constraints in school choice between households of high and low socio-economic status drive the unequal allocation of pupils across schools much more than differences in preferences.
Different families have different sets of schools to choose from: richer families choose between schools that have on average much higher grades than poorer families. The differences in school choices made between households with higher and lower socio-economic status therefore largely reflects differences in the available schools.
Are there differences in preferences? This research, published in the September 2015 Economic Journal, shows that differences in preferences do contribute to the differences in the types of schools that are chosen. But these differences are relatively minor compared with the differences in the nature of the schools available: two thirds of the difference in the academic quality of the chosen school comes from differences in the schools available; one third from the difference in preferences.
The research looks at the choices of primary schools made on the Local Authority application form for thousands of families in England (using the Millennium Cohort Study).
The researchers first show that there are substantial differences in the academic quality of the local schools for families in different socio-economic groups. On average, the top fifth most socio-economically advantaged families have schools nearby that get grades 46% of a standard deviation higher than those available to families in the poorest fifth of families. This difference derives from the housing decisions of parents and much of this is variation is unavoidable – people live where they want to live and where they can afford to live.
On top of that is a second layer of difference. When popular schools have more applicants than places, there has to be some mechanism to ration those places. The most widespread criterion in England is proximity – families living closer to the school are generally given priority.
The study shows that this adds a substantial further difference to the quality of available schools – the gap in average school quality for the richest and poorest fifth of families is one third greater when taking account of the proximity criterion. It is this criterion that is responsible for a significant component of inequality in access to high-performing schools.
What can be done? Popular schools cannot take everyone who applies so there has to be some mechanism to ration places. If we want to break the link between access to high-performing schools and family income, then we need an alternative to proximity as a tiebreaker.
A lottery for over-subscribed places is one idea used around the world, but only infrequently in England. Schools could set aside a fraction of places for applicants who live beyond the ''catchment'' area of the school. Alternatively, schools could apply a banding system often used in the past, whereby schools'' intake of pupils is spread across the distribution of prior attainment or socio-economic background.
Professor Simon Burgess of CMPO, leading the research team, says:
''Obviously the overall goal for policy is to make all schools excellent. But until that nirvana arrives, we should not ignore the question of how places in the better performing schools are allocated.
''At the moment, the proximity criterion for admissions means that differences in family income have a substantial and regressive impact on that allocation.''
Ellen Greaves of IFS adds:
''We find that most parents have a preference for primary schools close to the home.
''It is disappointing that choice is restricted by distance-based admissions criteria for those households who place a higher value on the academic quality of the school than on proximity, and that a child''s experience of education can be affected by the ability of their parents to move close to their preferred school.''
Professor Anna Vignoles of Cambridge University comments:
''Poor parents have fewer high performing schools available to them. This will remain true as long as proximity, and hence the size of your mortgage, determines access to such schools.
''To break the link between family background and access to a good schools, more imaginative school allocation mechanisms are needed.''
To address these questions, the team assembled a unique dataset. They used survey information on parents'' primary school choices and a rich set of family socio-economic and neighbourhood characteristics from the Millennium Cohort Study. They linked this to administrative data on the characteristics of local schools, and the nature of the local school choice mechanism.
To identify parents'' constraints in terms of available and feasible school choices, they used the national pupil census with location information to model the de facto catchment areas around schools within which there is a high probability of admission.
''What Parents Want: School Preferences and School Choice'' by Simon Burgess, Ellen Greaves and Anna Vignoles is published in the September 2015 issue of the Economic Journal. Simon Burgess is director of the Centre for Market and Public Organisation (CMPO) at the University of Bristol. Ellen Greaves is at the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS). Professor Anna Vignoles is at the University of Cambridge.