Anyone with an interest in English education can’t have failed to notice a marked stepping up of school choice policy since the UK Coalition Government came to power in May 2010. Last week Chancellor George Osborne’s Autumn Statement included a promise of £600 million for the setting up of 100 new ‘Free Schools’ in England, and Michael Gove has said of schools converting to Academy status that this will lead to greater diversity and innovation at the local level, facilitating greater choice for parents.
But are choice and diversity in education really what people want? NatCen Social Research findings, released today, show that while 68% of the British public do believe that parents have a ‘right to choose’, overall 63 per cent also feel that parents ought to be sending their children to the nearest state school. A further 22% who initially disagree with the latter idea say that they would agree if the quality and social mixes of pupils between schools was more equal. This suggests that even those who might reject their nearest state school do so only because they fear that school quality and social mixes vary too much – i.e. the ‘right to choose’ becomes a necessity, not a prospect to be relished. Out of 2000 respondents asked as part of the British Social Attitudes survey, only 36% approve of parents moving house in order to be nearer ‘better schools’, and only 4% believe that ‘making sure parents have a lot of choice about the kind of school their child goes to’ should be the number one priority for schools. Ultimately it is school quality, not choice, that people think is intrinsically important.
Perhaps what lies behind support for recently opened Free Schools, then, is also a concern about educational quality. People do want to support their local school, but they fear this is not good enough and so they hope to set up a new one instead. Policy focus on setting up new schools, however, diverts attention away from crucial questions about why existing schools are unequal/ inadequate in the first place – typically a product of wider social inequalities and the segregation of pupils from different social backgrounds. If parents seek to set up new schools with extra funding and support for their own (and some other) but not all children, could this risk exacerbating the very social problems that people (according to BSA data) are seeking to escape in education?