Gloomy day for ministers as parents snub choice
School choice has become a mantra of Michael Gove's since he came to power, and it has completely altered the complexion of the country's school system. But according to research released this week, parents do not want it.
A poll conducted by the British Social Attitudes Survey shows that more than eight out of 10 people believe parents should simply send their children to the nearest state school.
School choice has become a central pillar for the Coalition, with the education secretary placing academies and free schools at the heart of his school reform agenda. But the study revealed that nearly two-thirds of respondents (63 per cent) agreed outright with the statement that choice was not a priority. A further 22 per cent agreed that it was not a priority, but only if the quality of the schools and their social mix were more equal.
Dr Sonia Exley, a lecturer at the London School of Economics, led the study. She is insistent that the research undermines current Government policy, which, she says, places too great an emphasis on the power of school choice to improve local schools.
"The survey reveals there is no great enthusiasm for choice and that people actually want for everybody to send their children to their local school," Dr Exley said. "By providing more choice by creating new schools, all you are doing is shifting the problem. Giving the parents the option over where they send their child does not necessarily mean it will promote equality among schools."
The Government's promotion of choice as an agenda actually diverts attention away from improving the local school, she added.
The data did, however, show that 68 per cent of respondents agreed parents had a "basic right to choose" a school, while 50 per cent believed parents had a duty to choose "the best possible" school for their child, even if other schools in the local area might suffer.
Russell Hobby (pictured, right), general secretary of heads' union the NAHT, said choice can be a "dangerous thing".
"It may be unprofessional for me to say so, and I don't want to prevent it, but I don't think we should ascribe a huge benefit to school choice," he said. "If anything, I think it can widen inequality rather than reduce it.
"Choice can work in business, but it actually hamstrings schools as it doesn't take into account those working in difficult circumstances and can take away resources from them."
Comber Grove Primary in Camberwell, south London, now feeds into nearly a dozen schools, with a choice of state-maintained secondaries, academies and even free schools on offer.
Comber Grove's head, Mike Kent, who writes a weekly column for TES, said choice can be a good thing, but he believes the proof that it improves all schools will not be seen for years.
"My parents generally choose their school by reputation; they speak to other parents," he said. "I think most parents would rather send their kids to their local school, but only if it's a good one. Choice could force standards up across the board, but you will have to wait five, possibly more, years for the dust to settle to see if it works."
Critics' main concern with school choice is that offering more aspirational parents the choice of a different school can draw them away from their local one.
However, Dale Bassett, research director at right-wing think-tank Reform, warned against underestimating every parent's desire to do what was best for their child.
"Previously, exercising school choice was about parents buying a more expensive house," Mr Bassett said. "But that is a problem around practice not principle. There is always a potential danger that school choice is exercised least by those who need it most, but with the right guidance and advice that should not be a factor.
"We underestimate at our peril the amount parents care about their child's education. Given genuine school choice, most parents will exercise it."
WHO CHOSE CHOICE?
85% - Believe parents should send their children to their local school
63% - Agree choice is not a priority
22% - Agree choice is not a priority but only if schools are equal
68% - Believe parents have a "basic right" to choose
50% - Believe parents have a "duty" to choose
Source: British Social Attitudes Survey.