Each year, around half a million children start secondary school in England for the first time. It is a daunting experience for both parent and child and it is shaped by the choices these parents took with their children the previous autumn when applying to their preferred schools.
Some will have successfully gained a place in their most preferred school, others will have been offered a place in their second, third, fourth, fifth … or in some cases, sixth choice school. And for a small minority of parents, they will miss out on all of their preferred schools.
So why does school choice matter? School quality is a key driver of pupils’ later educational outcomes. Therefore, It is important to understand the process by which parents and children choose schools.
A new piece of analysis by the Education Policy Institute (EPI), has assessed the process of choosing secondary schools and whether this varies for different groups of parents in different parts of the country. The analysis addresses the number of schools that parents apply to, the quality of those schools based on their Ofsted rating, and the likelihood that parents are offered their first-preference school.
EPI’s research reveals that there is clear variation in the school choice system by geography, ethnicity and to a lesser extent, by pupil premium eligibility.
One-third of parents express only one school preference – the most common response – and only 28 per cent state the maximum number of preferences allowed by their local authority.
But the number of preferences tells us nothing about their quality. Though Ofsted ratings may not be a fool-proof guide to the academic performance of a school, especially for schools with challenging intakes, we know that Ofsted is a key source of information for parents when making their selections.
Using Ofsted ratings as a proxy, the analysis finds that most parents (52 per cent) apply to a good school as their top preference, with a further 30 per cent nominating an outstanding school. Yet one-in-six parents (17 per cent) have a most preferred school that is rated as less than good by Ofsted and surprisingly, of these, over one-quarter (27 per cent) do so despite having a good or outstanding school as their nearest school.
While this is only a small group nationally (around 5 per cent), the analysis shows that families eligible for the pupil premium are more likely to be within this group.
Perhaps the most striking findings relate to the likelihood of parents being offered their first preference school. Nationally, offer rates are high with 84 per cent of parents offered their first preference school. But there are marked geographic differences. Virtually all parents in some areas – such as Northumberland (99 per cent) and Cornwall (98 per cent) – are offered their first preference. At the other extreme, the local authorities with the lowest proportion of parents being offered their first preference are the inner London authorities of Hammersmith and Fulham, (53 per cent ) Westminster (54 per cent) and Lambeth (58 per cent). Of the 20 local authorities with the lowest likelihood of being offered first preference, 19 are in London – with the exception being Birmingham (69 per cent).
There are also some clear demographic differences. Nationally, 90 per cent of white British parents are offered their most preferred school compared to only 66 per cent of black parents; by contrast, there are only modest differences by pupil premium eligibility. However, these raw gaps can be misleading as they do not take into account key factors like school quality or local context which directly affect the likelihood that parents will receive an offer from their most preferred school, regardless of their background.
As a simple way to consider this, the analysis focuses on just those parents whose most preferred school is good or outstanding and who live in London. Among these parents, white British families are 4 percentage points less likely than black parents to apply to a good school yet when they do so they are 19 percentage points more likely to be offered their most preferred school. Pupil Premium families also face a lower chance of being offered their most preferred good school, though these gaps are smaller than between ethnic groups.
Focusing on London parents only does not account for variation within London in the density or accessibility of good schools available to different groups of parents. For example, certain groups in the capital may live further away from good schools, which curtails their opportunities to access them because of the use of proximity in school admissions. Yet this cannot be the full story as recent research taking distance into account also finds clear differences in admission rates between ethnic groups living in London and other big cities.
There is more work to do on school choice, to better understand the patterns, and questions, this research has unearthed.
Emily Hunt is senior researcher of school systems and performance at the Education Policy Institute