Memorandum by Professor Ron Glatter (CVP
CHOICE AND DIVERSITY OF SCHOOLING PROVISION:
ISSUES AND EVIDENCE
This paper offers a brief review of evidence
and key issues relevant to choice and diversity in the maintained
secondary school sector in England since the mid 1990s.
It focuses in particular on the Committee's
question 21, about the relationship between diversity and choice.
It suggests that, despite a strong focus on choice and diversity
in schools policy over more than a decade, the precise connection
between them is very little understood and needs much closer attention.
The relationship between them appears subtle and ambiguous. Just
as choice does not necessarily lead to greater diversity, so diversity
may not produce perceptions of increased choice. For example it
is not self-evident that defining school missions more sharply
in terms of subject specialisation will lead to a perception of
enhanced choice among families of 10-year old children. The perception
could instead turn out to be one of reduced choice, particularly
among the many families in all types of area (not just rural ones)
who consider that their realistic choice of schools is very limited.
Families may also perceive unwelcome pressure to form a judgement
about their child's aptitudes at an early age.
Current policy on school diversity is heavily
focused on one specific and arguably narrow form of diversity,
namely subject specialisation. There are also indications of a
"pecking order" of specialisms developing which could
reinforce existing hierarchies.
The paper also addresses aspects of questions
30-33, concerning choice and national standards and choice and
equity. There has been a large body of research on school choice.
There is little evidence that choice has led to improved educational
outcomes, while the context of uniform standards and the need
to appeal to a broad "market" has on the whole discouraged
schools from voluntarily seeking to differentiate themselves sharply.
With regard to choice and equity, there is some disagreement but
overall it appears that any tendency towards greater polarisation
may often have been blunted by the influence of other factors
such as demography or school reorganisation. The wide variety
of local contexts and the many ways the various influences play
out within them make generalisation hazardous.
Finally the Committee does not appear in its
questions to have raised the issue of demand. There is a puzzle
about policy-makers' intense and continuing interest in between-school
choice and diversity when there is no evidence of a widespread
demand for them from the public. Parents generally appear to be
simply looking for a school which will deliver the "standard
product" well, though this could change were a range of more
distinct school types to become available.
The principal elements of the education quasi-market
in England introduced by the Conservative government's Education
Reform Act of 1988 have frequently been described (for example:
OECD, 1994; Whitty et al, 1998; Tomlinson, 2001). There
was a considerable extension of parents' rights to choose a state
school for their child ("more open enrolment"). Schools
became funded by formula based largely on the number of pupils
on roll and were required to manage delegated budgets including
staff salaries. Crucially these market-based measures were complemented
by a strong form of performance regulation, including a national
curriculum, frequent testing and the publication of school test
and performance tables. A national system of regular inspections
controlled by a government agency, the Office for Standards in
Education (Ofsted), was instituted in 1993.
The Labour government first elected in 1997
has retained the essential elements of this system. "The
main structures of the quasi-market are still in placeparental
choice, open enrolment, funding following pupils, school diversity
and publication of league tables" (West and Pennell, 2002,
p 218). It has however made some adaptations. For example, the
market emphasis is being enhanced through encouragement for successful
and popular schools to expand and to take over weak and "failing"
schools (Blair, 2002). On the other hand there is now increased
regulation of the school admissions process through a code of
practice and an adjudication system. Projects such as "Excellence
in Cities" (DfEE, 1999) designed to target resources to areas
with high levels of disadvantage have been established. Value
added measures have been introduced to school performance tables.
There is a strong emphasis, which was not present under the Conservatives,
on partnership and the sharing of expertise between schools. Perhaps
of particular significance is a much enhanced focus on school
diversity, particularly through a large expansion in the number
of specialist schools: "This greater diversity is good for
pupils and parents and will ensure there is more choice and innovation
in the school system" (Morris, 2001, p 7). The rationale
for this emphasis on diversity and innovation may be understood
from a brief discussion of one of the major research studies of
the operation of the quasi-market under the Conservatives.
A substantial longitudinal (1991-96) projectthe
Parental and School Choice Interaction (PASCI) study (Woods et
al, 1998)contained three inter-related sets of findings
of particular relevance to subsequent policy.
First, the study noted a tendency for schools
to "privilege" the academic aspects of their provision
as a response to more market-like conditions. This appeared to
be less a reflection of parental preferences, since most parents
do not emphasise the academic over and above personal and social
factors, than of the policy environment which provides strong
incentives in this direction through, for example, the published
performance tables accentuating academic performance. Second,
the tendency for schools in England to appeal to a broad grouping
of potential parents and pupils rather than to differentiate themselves
sharply in order to focus on a specific niche, noted in the OECD's
(1994) report on school choice in six countries, was confirmed.
This tendency towards homogenisation arose both from central prescriptions
such as the national curriculum and also from market incentives
promoted by per capita funding and more open enrolment.
Third, and closely connected to both the previous points, there
was little evidence that the competitive arrangements established
in England in the 1990s had encouraged innovation within the system.
Where innovation did take place it was running counter to the
centralising trends of policy, and there were indications of it
being curbed sometimes by a reluctance to appear to step outside
the dominant model of the high status school.
These are of course broad generalisations drawn
from the detailed study and need to be understood as such. We
will return later to the issues raised by the findings.
In the later 1990s the English research on choice
became increasingly quantitative, including attempts to probe
the connection between the competitive system and educational
outcomes. The PASCI study had already found that the most consistent
improvement in exam pass rates over a four-year period took place
in the least competitive of its three case study areas, which
was in a semi-rural location. However, a later study based on
a more quantitative methodology found some evidence of a link
between degrees of competition in local areas and rates of examination
improvement over time (Levacic, 2001). In a sample of over 300
schools, a statistical association was found between heads perceiving
that they were in competition with at least five other schools
and performance in the "headline" performance measure
of five or more grade A* to C in the General Certificate of Secondary
Education (GCSE) examination. The author suggests that "this
is due both to greater stimulus to improve and maintain the school's
position in the local hierarchy and to more opportunities for
co-operation and emulation related to product quality" (ibid,
p 40). However, as the author indicates, the finding must
be interpreted with caution. First, another key indicatorthe
degree of competition as perceived by the headwas not found
to be associated with performance improvement. Second, it relates
to only one performance measure: the limitations of this particular
measure as an indicator of the achievement of all pupils in a
school have been widely recognised, despite the political significance
that has been accorded to it.
Gorard and his associates pursued a different
issue through quantitative analysis: whether choice and competition
increases polarisation. Analysing data for every state-funded
school in England and Wales over a 12-year period, they found
that overall segregation in terms of poverty had declined between
1989 and 2001: although it began to rise after 1997, in 2001 it
remained below the 1989 level (Gorard et al, 2002a). They
attributed this finding to three sets of factors:
local social geography, such as the
pattern of local housing;
school organisation at a local level,
including closures and mergers of schools (which tend to decrease
local segregation) and selection and school diversity (where higher
levels of segregation tend to be found); and
school admission systems.
With regard to the latter, the authors' data
suggest that local education authorities (LEAs) which use catchment-area
based systems, and LEAs in which a large proportion of schools
are their own admission authorities (such as voluntary-aided and
foundation schools) have higher levels of segregation. One of
the authors' overall conclusions is that "Choice policies
do not appear to have either the clear benefits their advocates
had hoped or the dangers of segregation their opponents feared"
(ibid, p 36).
This study has generated a bitter academic and
methodological dispute. For example Gibson and Asthana (2000)
published data indicating that, within local markets, initially
high-ranking schools have been drawing to themselves the most
advantaged pupils and improving their GCSE performance fastest.
They claim this gives solid support to the thesis that competitive
markets in schooling promote social polarisation. Noden (2000)
criticised the Gorard et al study for using an inappropriate
measure of segregation and proposed an alternative. Using his
alternative as well as Gorard's measure he concluded that there
had been a slight increase in social segregation between 1994
From a smaller-scale study of the secondary
school transfer process in London, Noden et al (1998) found
that middle-class families gained access to significantly higher
scoring schools in terms of GCSE passes. There was little evidence
that this was due to where they lived ("selection by mortgage"),
but appeared to be because they could afford to travel further
in order to flee low-scoring inner city schools and because some
schools had adopted admissions policies favouring more privileged
applicants. More recently a government-sponsored survey of parents'
experience of school choice drew attention to the role of cultural
capital as a resource for promoting access to desired schooling
(Flatley et al, 2001). Better-educated mothers were much
more likely than others to say they knew how pupil allocations
to popular schools were carried out. Owner-occupiers and mothers
of white ethnic origin were also particularly likely to assert
that they understood the technicalities of the allocation process.
This study also indicated that parents in London were least likely
to be offered a place in the school they most wanted (nearly 70%
compared with 85% nationally). London parents were also less likely
to apply to their nearest school than those living in other areas
(including other urban areas) and they were the least satisfied
with the outcome of the application process.
From this necessarily brief and selective review
of the substantial body of research on school choice in England,
some general points might be made. There are evident methodological
difficulties involved in investigating the effects of such a complex
set of policy developments. These difficulties are rendered more
acute when other reforms, some of which were intended in part
to counteract the impact of marketisation, were being introduced
at the same time, and when the changes themselves were and remain
the subject of intense ideological debate. This cluster of factors
may explain why the research results do not point unequivocally
in one direction, for example over the question of polarisation.
However an alternative explanation may be that even policy changes
that appear radical when they are first proposed and implemented
may have a much more limited impact than expected because of deep-rooted
social and geographical factors and because of coterminous trends
and forces that operate to reduce their effect. For example, Gorard
et al, (2002b) found no evidence of the predicted school
"spirals of decline", attributing this finding to school
rolls being higher than they would otherwise have been because
of a rising school population and school closures and mergers
during the period in question. Despite his criticisms of the Gorard
methodology, Noden makes a similar general point: "The sustained
population loss from some declining urban areas, and in particular
the loss of more advantaged families, may be of greater importance
to changes in the social mix of local schools than any `within-LEA'
quasi-market effects" (Noden, 2000, p 383). Subsequent research
and analysis have tended to confirm Gewirtz et al's assessment
in their pioneering study carried out in the early 1990s: "The
diversity of local settings and the particularity of their politics,
social geographies and histories make it difficult to generalise
about market forces in education" (Gewirtz et al, 1995,
The Labour government has put great emphasis
on an enhancement of school diversity, arguing that "each
school should have its own ethos and sense of mission" (DfES,
2002, p 17) to combat the excessive uniformity which they claim
the existing comprehensive system developed since the 1960s has
promoted. However the research referred to above suggests that
the reforms initiated by the 1988 Act were particularly strong
drivers of uniformity and homogenisation.
This greater diversity is being achieved in
large measure through a major extension of the Conservatives'
"experiment in specialisation" through plans to quadruple
the number of specialist secondary schools between 2001 and 2006
which would mean the majority of secondary schools having a stated
specialism. Eventually specialist school status would be available
to all schools that can submit convincing applications. Secretary
of State Charles Clarke has said that ". . .Specialist schools
lie at the heart of our drive to raise standards and offer more
choice in secondary schools" (DfES, 2002b) and the aim is
to create "a new specialist system" (Department for
Education and Skills, 2003). The specialisms that schools can
bid for have been extended from technology, languages, sport and
the arts to include engineering, science, "business and enterprise",
"mathematics and computing", music and humanities. These
schools have to set and meet targets in the specialist area and
raise business sponsorship for a relevant project: they receive
additional government grants, including an element for co-operation
and sharing of expertise with other schools.
Diversity has also been promoted by providing
encouragement for schools supported by the churches and other
faith groups. A few Muslim, Sikh and Greek Orthodox schools have
been brought inside the state system and are funded as "voluntary
aided" schools on the same basis as Church of England, Roman
Catholic and Jewish schools. The government proposed changing
the capital funding arrangements to make it easier to establish
new schools of this type. This became a highly controversial proposal
prompting fears of increased racial segregation and the teaching
of contentious religious doctrines such as creationism (Branigan,
2002). While stressing the need for faith-based schools to be
"inclusive" (DfES, 2001), the government removed this
feature of the diversity policy from relevant official documents
(for example DfES, 2002a).
Given the salience of the specialist school
model in current policy it is worth reviewing some relevant research.
West et al (2000) undertook a survey of existing specialist
schools funded by the government. By far the most common reason
cited for seeking specialist school status (by 51% of the headteachers
responding) was the additional money it would bring from sponsors
and the government. More than half the heads (53%) said that the
specialism chosen for the bid was not the school's strongest teaching
area. These two responses might suggest a predominantly tactical
approach to the opportunity of specialist school status rather
than a strategy born out of educational conviction. In terms of
the requirement to benefit other schools, work with feeder primary
schools was the most common form of collaboration (as would be
expected in a competitive environment). With respect to other
secondary schools, links tended to be with more distant schools
such as other specialist schools, those with common sponsors or
schools in other countries. In a parallel government-funded study
based on case studies of 12 specialist schools, Yeomans et
al (2000) reported that across all their schools the weakest
links were with neighbouring secondary schools. An evaluation
by Ofsted (2001) concluded that specialist schools were weak in
sharing resources and expertise with local schools and the wider
community. This raises policy implications which will be discussed
The West et al research indicated that
specialist schools' GCSE performances have improved more than
those of other schools, and a number of other benefits were reported
by those involved with the schools. In addition, studies by Jesson
(2001) for the Technology Colleges Trust (which is now called
the Specialist Schools Trust and exists to develop specialist
schooling) using value added methodology indicated that schools
specialising in technology and languages added more "value"
in terms of helping pupils make progress towards GCSE than did
non-specialist schools. Those specialising in arts or sport did
less well: they produced value added GCSE scores almost identical
with those of non-specialist schools. These findings clearly strengthened
the government's confidence in pressing ahead with extending the
programme. However, as both reports acknowledge, there could be
a variety of reasons for the superior performance of some of these
schools. The bidding process may identify improving schools that
would have made these improvements in any case, and the additional
resources which inclusion in the programme brings are very likely
to have a positive influence on performance. Further, such studies
are of limited value as a guide to national policy unless they
cover not just these schools' own performances but also how the
schools have affected the performances of other schools in their
localities. The Jesson research has also been heavily criticised
on technical grounds by a respected expert in school performance
analysis who maintained that this purported evidence for the success
of specialist schools "does not stand up to close examination"
Nevertheless, Jesson has undertaken the study
annually since 2000 (see for example Jesson, 2003) and it is usually
the only one referred to in government statements and in press
coverage. The Commons Education and Skills Committee criticised
the government for relying on too narrow a range of evidence in
this area (House of Commons Education and Skills Committee, 2003).
Further research using more sophisticated value-added
methodology (Schagen et al, 2002) indicated that specialist
schools produced only a slight peformance advantage over non-specialists
and this advantage was attributable entirely to two of the four
existing forms of specialism, technology and languages. This study
also provided some tentative evidence that specialist schools
might be succeeding at the expense of neighbouring non-specialist
schools. It also reported that LEAs with a high proportion of
specialist schools (20% or over) did not perform as well as those
with a low proportion. "There was thus no evidence to support
the suggestion that an increase in the number of specialist schools
would yield improvements in overall performance results"
(ibid, p 45). The finding that (for whatever reason) specialist
schools performed only slightly better than non-specialists was
supported by a government statistical study. It observed that
"Differences in average progress were small compared to the
spread of outcomes for pupils with similar prior attainment"
(National Statistics, 2002, p 33). A similar conclusion was reached
by a study from the National Audit Office (2003).
The Schagen et al (2002) study was also
one of the very few to examine the performance of faith-based
schools. Church of England schools were found overall to perform
marginally better, but Roman Catholic schools no better or worse,
than non-religious schools. (However the very small number of
Jewish schools had significantly better results than either Christian
or non-religious schools). The authors concluded that they had
not found any clear evidence to support the view that, if these
schools created a specially supportive and well-ordered environment,
it provided a climate that led to high achievement.
3. Diversity and choice: a new direction
in schooling, or a buttressing of the old?
One of the government's key principles in 1997,
as set out in its White Paper Excellence in Schools, was
"The focus will be on standards, not structures" (DfEE,
1997, p 5). By 2004 it appears they have discovered the attractions
of significant structural change. A major question is whether
their present policy stance in the area of choice and diversity
turns out to be a radical and visionary approach or a reinforcement
of old and deep-rooted divisions. The government has sought to
combine a major extension in diversity with an equivalent growth
in collaborative practice between schools, even though the central
characteristics of, and incentives relating to, the competitive
system are still in place. In addition, there is a strongly articulated
objective of enhancing equality of opportunity and also a strong
focus on reducing the "achievement gap" (DfES, 2001).
It will be interesting to see whether diversity, collaboration
and equality can all be significantly enhanced or whether the
inevitable tensions between these distinct objectives will result
in one or two of them becoming dominant. The research on specialist
schools discussed earlier indicates that competition and partnership
can make uneasy bedfellows. Numerous initiatives emphasising collaboration
are underway (Glatter, 2004, in press) and several of them are
Will the new diversity be built on a competitive
or a genuinely pluralistic model? As the 1994 OECD report stated:
"Unlike some other nationalities, the English are used to
the concept that routes to academic success may lie in centres
of academic excellence rather than comprehensive neighbourhood
schools" (OECD, 1994, p 64) and that this familiarity derived
from both the "public" and the grammar school traditions.
Like the City Technology Colleges (CTCs) and grant-maintained
(GM) schools before them, specialist schools experienced a significant
increase in their popularity following designation, and the majority
of headteachers in the West et al study (2000) attributed
this, at least in part, to their new status.
The policy for specialist and other new types
of school was originally presented as "modernising"
or "overhauling" the comprehensive system. However,
its many critics, conscious of the specific social and cultural
context of English secondary education, regard it as signifying
the death of that system and its replacement by a two-tier structure
of "winning" and "losing" schools and communities.
More recently reference has been made (for example in Tony Blair's
speech to the 2002 Labour Party conference) to a "post-comprehensive
era" but retaining the comprehensive principle of equality
The prospects for achieving a pluralistic rather
than an hierarchic/competitive form of diversity seem to depend
on at least two key factors. First, in terms of supply, the models
so far developed are relatively limited in number and fall far
short of the possible range (see the typology of school diversity
proposed in Glatter et al, 1997, p 8). The policy is heavily
dependent on the specialist school model (curricular diversity
in terms of the typology) and this dependence has been accentuated
by the recent government reticence over faith schools. For example
the new "Academies"publicly-funded independent
schools sponsored by private and voluntary bodies and established
in areas of disadvantageare also required to have curricular
specialisation. A more creative approach to developing contrasting
types of school would be needed, and this would imply a greater
willingness to relax central controls particularly in the area
of performance regulation.
With regard to demand, there is a critical issue
concerning the relationship between diversity and choice. The
two terms have now been linked in policy discourse for more than
a decade, since the Conservative government's 1992 White Paper,
Choice and Diversity: a new framework for schools (DfE,
1992): the specialist schools policy has been explicitly presented
in terms of enhancing choice (Blair, 2002). However the precise
connection between them is very little understood and despite
the significant quantity of research on choice and the quasi-market
little attention has been given to this particular topic. The
limited empirical evidence available suggests that, apart from
preferences among relatively small proportions of parents for
specific forms of religious education or for single-sex schooling
there is no widespread demand for school diversity (see for example
Woods et al, 1998). Parents generally appear to be simply
looking for a school which will deliver the "standard product"
well, whether or not it carries a "badge" of distinctiveness.
Of course this could change were a range of more distinct school
types to become available, but Walford's judgement of some years
ago that the (then) government's diversity policy ". . .has
been largely generated by the government itself, and has not been
the result of pressure from parents" (Walford, 1996, p 145)
still holds true.
A pluralistic approach to diversity would require
"a relatively even spread of choices" (OECD, 1994, p
42) so as to avoid the situation where some schools widely seen
as the "best" are heavily over-subscribed and there
is a "concentration of the most disadvantaged pupils in the
least popular schools" (DfEE, 2001, p 87). Such a spread
of choices would be more likely to happen "if parents have
diverse `frames of reference' placing different values on aspects
of educational attainments" (Adnett and Davies, 2002, p 202).
Historical and cultural factors militate against such a development
in the English context (Edwards and Whitty, 1997).
An important set of issues centre on availability
and illustrate the intimate connection between supply and demand.
A striking small-scale research conducted in the early 1990s in
a single medium-sized English town demonstrated the logistical
difficulties involved in increasing diversity (Brain and Klein,
1994). Parents were surveyed about their preferences among the
more restricted range of school types available at that time,
principally single sex/co-educational and church-linked/non-denominational.
The authors calculated that almost twice as many secondary schools
would need to be provided in the town in order to meet all the
parents' preferences. They also pointed out that if the choice
menu had been extended to cover different curricular specialisms
and a wider range of faith-based options (as are now being offered)
the logistical problem would have been considerably exacerbated.
Parental perceptions of availability are also
a significant factor. The PASCI study conducted large-scale parental
surveys in three contrasting areas of England. In a semi-rural
area, only around one in four parents thought they had a realistic
choice between three or more schools: the figure went up to just
over half in a medium-sized town. Even in a heavily urbanised
area a substantial proportion of parentsvarying between
a third and a quarter across the three years that the survey was
conductedconsidered that their realistic choice was limited
to one or two schools (Woods et al, 1998).
This raises the possibility that increased diversity
may reduce rather than enhance parents' perception of the extent
of choice open to them. For example, in the case of specialist
schools it is an open question whether a choice between a small
number of schools emphasising particular subject specialisms will
be perceived as a more or a less attractive menu of options than
was available previously under a more generalist system. For some
parents and pupils, where the latter's specific talents and strengths
are already clearly evident by the age of 10, or who are attracted
not so much by the particular subject specialism as by the sense
of "special-ness" it confers, the offer may be welcome
(assuming that they can gain admission). For others the particular
mix of specialisms available may be perceived as unappealing or
may provide an additional source of anxiety in appearing to require
an early judgement about a child's aptitudes.
The next phase of research should examine such
issues by focusing directly on the relationship between choice
and diversity. This discussion also indicates that neither choice
nor diversity is an end in itself. They are both means intended
to contribute to wider goals, such as enhancing parent and pupil
satisfaction over school allocations and achieving a good fit
between the school allocated, the child's educational and social
needs and the family's preferences in an equitable manner. Whether
and how policy and practice over school admissions contributes
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1 This is a slightly adapted and updated version of
my background paper "School choice and diversity in England:
a brief overview of research and key issues" submitted to
the Education and Skills Committee inquiry into diversity of provision
in secondary education (House of Commons Education and Skills
Committee, 2003). It has formed the basis for my contribution
to Hirsch et al, (2004, in press), an article on school
choice and diversity with an international focus, with special
reference to England and New Zealand. Back