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Image of Photograph of Professor Anna Vignoles

Parents choose highest-achieving schools over those nearest to home, major study finds

Most families do not choose to send their children to their nearest secondary school, opting to prioritise academic achievement instead, according to the biggest ever study of state secondary school choices in England.

The research, led by College Fellow Professor Anna Vignoles of the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge, found that, contrary to a widely-held belief, only 39% of families nominated their closest school as their first option, with many willing to send children much further from home in their quest for higher standards.

In another myth-busting finding, the study, published in the Oxford Review of Education, revealed there is almost no difference between richer and poorer households’ engagement with the school choice system, with families where children are entitled to free school meals as active in their use of choices and rankings as more affluent parents.

The study, co-authored by researchers at Bristol University, is the most detailed examination to date of choices of secondary school places in England. It makes use of newly-available national data providing anonymised information on every English household’s school choices for the 2014/15 academic year, totalling over 526,000 pupils.

Researchers set out to ask how actively parents in England use the school choice system, and how use of the system varies across households and neighbourhoods.

"On average we found parents and pupils usually attempt to try to study at the highest-attaining school, rather than the one which is closest," said Prof Vignoles.

Parents in poorer areas were more likely to opt for schools further away - with researchers suggesting this was because richer families were more likely to live close to high-performing schools.

Different parts of the country allow different numbers of preferences - usually three or six options - and the study found that where more options were offered, parents made twice as many choices. The analysis also reveals for the first time that, when offered the chance to express more options, families’ first school choice tended to be more ambitious.

Parents wanted to express more preferences, and having three rather than six choices could push them into making pragmatic choices, rather than what they might really want, researchers concluded.

Prof Vignoles said: “There appears to be a degree of caution being exhibited whereby parents are more likely to put down the school that they have the greatest chance of their child being admitted to (often their nearest) when they are only permitted three choices.

“Due to the limit in the number of options allowed, first choice schools may be ‘safe’ rather than ‘ambitious’. The data show that the quality of parents’ first choice school is higher in local authorities where more choices are permitted, suggesting that where more choices are allowed, parents are more ambitious.”

Although most households (85%) receive an offer from their first-choice school, this is probably masking a wider issue in which many parents are making pragmatic choices rather than nominating the school they really want for their children, researchers concluded.

In another significant finding, the research reveals a striking difference in the use of the school choice system between white families and black and Asian parents. The latter were on average likely to make more choices than parents of white children (41% of White British households only make one choice, compared with 17% of Asian households and 12% of Black households), and were much more likely to seek places further from where they lived, usually for a higher-achieving school.

Despite making more choices, however, black and Asian families were also less likely than white counterparts to get into their first preference school. Students with English as an Additional Language have a lower chance (73% relative to 88% for non-EAL students) of receiving an offer from their first-choice school.

The researchers say this could be because black and Asian families are less likely to live near the most sought-after schools and so are making more "ambitious" first choices, which are less likely to be available.

There is also a division between rural and urban areas, with families in cities using the school choice system more actively but less likely to receive their first choice of school.

While the study reveals most families are ready to look further afield for a better school, researchers highlight the fact that the current admissions system usually gives priority to those living closest to an over-subscribed school.

The criterion “is likely to induce strategic school choices, residential segregation and unequal access to the highest quality schools”, the report says, adding: “A pressing policy issue is to consider different admissions criteria that might reduce this inequality in access”.

School choice in England: evidence from national administrative data. Oxford Review of Education; 22 May 2019;

This article was first published on the Faculty of Education website. It has been republished with their permission.


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