The Government is unlikely to fulfil its promise of greater diversity between schools without such measures as vouchers for parents, according to researchers at the Open University.
The three-year study on parental choice found that there are few incentives to encourage schools to specialise or to offer a particular teaching style. In the main, the only choice parents have is between selective education, comprehensives and church schools. Almost a third of parents reported that they had no real choice over the secondary school for their children.
Professor Ron Glatter, who led the research team, believes the Government will have to be prepared to accept higher levels of surplus places and will have to further reduce the content of the national curriculum if parents are to be provided with a range of different kinds of schools.
Other steps might include greater encouragement to potential founders of new schools, including religious schools other than the existing Church of England, Roman Catholic and Jewish; more open admission procedures and acceptance of the need for higher school transport costs. In addition, the Government would probably need to introduce some form of voucher scheme, he says.
While the Government has stressed its commitment to diversity, Professor Glasser suggests further research is required to establish more clearly whether there is widespread parental demand for a variety of types of school. Policy makers, he says, would also have the tackle the issue of inequalities if some parents were given preferential access to better-resourced or more-valued forms of schooling.
Parents, he says, may not want diversity, but might want to choose the school that best delivers the standard product. An increase in the number of schools offering a specialism might also lead to excessive specialisation.
The research found that some parents prefer schools which stress high academic standards, but there were unconcerned about whether or not schools were grant-maintained. The four most important factors influencing parental choice were found to be: child's preference; academic standards; nearness to home and the potential for the child to be happy at a particular school.
However, parents varied most in the degree to which they stressed the need for academic standards. Parents were not particularly concerned about having the choice of a church school.
The study is part of continuing research into the interaction of parental choice and schools' response funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.
It is written by Professor Glasser, Philip Woods and Carl Bagley of the Centre for Educational Policy and Management at the Open University.