A gentle nudge with a huge knock-on effect
I recently participated in a seminar on school evaluation and improvement. It was a productive, informed discussion. The issue which left me troubled, however, centred on the impacts of parental choice on school evaluation.
School evaluation is inevitably based on measurable outcomes: attainment, post-school destinations, attendance, exclusions. Ethos, atmosphere and relationships are less easily measured. They do not fit easily, therefore, into the evaluative descriptors by which the media, and perhaps even the educational academics or the inspectorate, characterise schools.
The impact of parental choice, however, is on the hard measures. Almost inevitably, parental choice removes from a school a proportion of the children of the more ambitious, socially-skilled and academically- confident families. There is a further subsequent lowering of the very data by which schools are measured. All of this is common knowledge. It was, therefore, disappointing to hear one highly-respected academic state that the challenge was to raise standards in every school to a level where there was no desire to opt out.
That missed the point. In only a tiny number of cases is the choice made to seek a school with better teaching and better exam results, although the very existence of parental choice depresses such results. It is not poor performance that drives parental choice, but parental choice certainly depresses performance.
The issue at the heart of parental choice is social milieu. Parents choose to send their children to the school where they believe there will be more children from families like their own - ambitious, studious, valuing education. Perhaps there is even a desire to keep their children away from children perceived as ill-socialised or badly behaved.
No one should criticise parents for wanting the best for their children. I don't. On the other hand, and almost inevitably, the more middle class a school's catchment area, the more desirable it will be. In the cities there is a rank-ordering of schools in public perception, not based primarily on performance but on the class composition of the catchment.
What follows, in the cities, is a domino effect. Schools in the poorest communities suffer the loss of many of their potentially most able and most committed pupils who are sent to schools outwith their local areas. Schools in the most affluent areas are flooded with parental placing requests they cannot meet. Those in the middle category, serving areas of mixed or middling social status, lose pupils to the schools in the most affluent areas, but the resulting spaces created in these socially- middling schools are filled by young people from the poorest areas.
One other respected academic at the seminar declared that there is no turning back on parental choice. That sits ill for those of us uncomfortable with the market paradigm but, if we must accept it, there seems to me another inevitable conclusion.
We should close all secondary schools in areas of deprivation. Only thus can we move towards schools with a genuine social mix. With parental choice, but without that mix, the inevitable result is the continuation of schools of last resort in our peripheral urban estates. Such a move would also signal the end of community schools as they have developed over these past 35 years. It's a bleak prospect.
Alex Wood is head of Wester Hailes Education Centre, Edinburgh.