Thursday, 23 January 2014

The narrowing school choices for the poor

I have rather belatedly read the findings of a fascinating report by the Sutton Trust (thanks, Dale) which arrived in my in-box just before Christmas - and it does give a worrying snapshot of middle class panic about schools.

The report found that a third of professional parents have moved house to be near a better school.

Now, the first thing to say is that I'm not about to condemn people for wanting the best school for their children.  There is an irritating narrative around this which suggests that anyone who tries to choose a school is some kind of ultra-pushy social climber.

I don't accept this.  Heavens, I may even move myself for the same reason.

But findings do rather underline my experience during last year's Barriers to Choice Review.

Officially, there is no such thing as school choice.  It is, instead, the 'right to express a preference'.  But the Sutton Trust report Parent Power? suggests that, if moving house is necessary to get the school you want - or avoid the school you don't want - then this really is an option only open to the better off.

Nor is this just the middle classes.  The report defines 'professional' as socio-economic group A.  Goodness knows what the rest do.

The second finding which I was intrigued about was the way that parents go about making their preferences.  Rather more, in all socio-economic groups, make up their minds by visiting the school and talking to parents than they do from Ofsted reports or league tables.  Which is sensible, after all.

This very much confirmed what I found, which was that people's requirements for their children's school go very much beyond what is in league tables. They want to know about the friendliness, creativity, humanity of the school - not just the approved data.

Once again, these are not choices that are recognised as important by the people running UK education - which is why personally I back the free school movement, because people then have the opportunity to set up diverse styles of schooling.

But then, in areas where the population is increasing rapidly - also places with more pupil premium pupils - then the struggle for the best schools is going to intensify in the years ahead.  I met one chief officer who needs a new school every ten years just to keep up with the population.

Where I found difficulty agreeing was in the Sutton Trust's prescription: yes, there needs to be reporting about the socio-economic balance of admissions, but I don't think we should fuel the tutoring arms race with vouchers for tutors for poorer families.

On the other hand, something has to change.  Those self-serving admissions criteria, for example by the fearsome super-selective schools, need to be balanced by a broad duty to promote a social balance inside the school.

State-funded schools which don't adopt some responsibility for the wider well-being of their neighbourhood are not fulfilling the social contract that we might reasonably expect of them.

Some kind of duty along these lines wouldn't undermine the academic focus of super-selective schools. But if schools narrow their intake to those who can afford the coaching to pass entrance exams, then they owe their neighbourhood some route whereby less advantaged local people can aspire to get their children up to that standard.

I don't think that tutoring from the age of five, in some places, and on the industrial scale it is happening now - and I passed a packed maths class at our local swimming pool at 5pm this evening - is going to provide us with the creativity and imagination that the next generation needs.



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2 comments:

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