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March 14, 2006



Parents have the information they need but they are not using it - at least not enough.

Here's a simple illustration. Round my way there are several primary schools I could send my kiddie. Only the church schools are oversubscribed. Any parent in Islington N5 could choose between Drayton Park and Highbury Quadrant.

Here are their key stage II test results for the past three years. The figures refer to the numbers achieve 5 and 4 or above in English, Maths and Science tests and I have averaged them to smooth out the yearly changes (for those out of the loop, the higher the better).

Drayton Park:
English KS2 5 25%
English KS2 4+ 70%
Highbury Quadrant:
English KS2 5 8%
English KS2 4+ 48%
result: far more kids get the higher grades in English at Drayton Park; less than one in two children at Highbury Quadrant reach the satisfactory grade four.

Drayton Park:
Maths KS2 5 15%
Maths KS2 4+ 68%
Highbury Quadrant:
Maths KS2 5 10%
Maths KS2 4+ 47%
result: neither school has a lot of high achievers in Maths, but two-thirds reach level four in Drayton Park, versus less than a half in Highbury Quadrant.

Drayton Park:
Science KS2 5 34%
Science KS2 4+ 76%
Highbury Quadrant:
Science KS2 5 15%
Science KS2 4+ 61%
result: over a third of children at Drayton Park score highly in science and the advantage is sustained when looking at those scoring four or above.

The differences are clear and enduring. The Ofsted reports - also available on the internet - provide qualitative backing for these quantitative results. None of this data is hard to find or hard (for me) to interpret. And yet there are parents who are sending their children to Highbury Quadrant when they could send them to Drayton Park. The two schools are about one mile apart at most.

Over the past five years, pupil numbers at Highbury Quadrant have risen from 415 to 417, while numbers at Drayton Park have fallen from 310 to 283. You go figure...

Parents don't (yet) use choice effectively and you have to wonder if they ever will.


Will the parents of the most disadvantaged children really be able or willing to make informed choice?
In the US, I doubt that all parents of the most disadvantaged would be able to make informed choices. However, given how dismally the education system is currently failing these kids, if a few thousand extra kids can be saved by their involved parents, that would be a real win.

Also, in NYC they have a catalog (or at least did a decade ago) that goes out to kid's right before high school. It looks a like like a phone book and features a multi-page spread on each school, detailing the school and a few statistics. You then choose the ones that you like, fill out a form, and based on your grades they match you up with the highest ranked school that will take you.

A product like that strongly decreases the costs of selecting the best schools for your kids.

Luis Enrique

Come on S&M, stir things up and post this, or provide a link to this post, at Comment is free. That's what it's there for. Just think, you might even enlighten some Guardian readers.

mark adams

Making an informed choice isn't a black and white issue. Every decision we make is based on information we collate. The question is whether parents will make better decisions about their kid's education than the state does.

The government's proposal will not offer real choice and will be unlikely to deliver the benefits. Judith Williamson may actually have a point, Blair's rhetoric to justify his halfway house proposal does sound a lot like a logical impossibility.

Marcin Tustin

As the government has put forwards no credible mechanism for the dissolution of failing schools, the expansion of schools that work well, and no plan for addressing the question of schools in areas where the investment required to create a new school and the low number of potential pupils makes the creation of rival schools uneconomic, the governments' plans do amount to a claim that everyone will be able to choose to attend the best.

Luis Enrique

right, I'll do it for you (I am at a loose end).

steve hemingway

Surely choice should work in secondary state schools in the same way it works in the private sector. One of the most important roles of the Prep School head is to know which of the local public schools has the worst drug problem, which have problems with bullying, and to which to send your child if you want him to go to Oxford or Cambridge. There is no real need for the parents be informed themselves.
It doesn't require all parents to exercise (guided) choice, just the marginal ones, but of course the critical requirement is that the unpopular schools should just close down. Sadly this is where the reforms are bound to fail.


This gets to the heart of the problem with 'choice' in education. Say unpopular school closes down. What happens to the pupils? They can't all go to another school. Or even if they could, then what happens if two years later that school closes down? This might be disruptive to a child's education.


"if parents can genuinely choose schools, schools will have to improve in order to attract customers. Over time, that will raise standards everywhere"

You adduce several problems with this argument but miss a problem of a different order, which is that it would take time to work - and with a child's secondary school career lasting five years, time isn't plentiful. In other words, *even if the argument were entirely valid and we could be sure that its results are as expected* - actually putting it into practice must involve jeopardising the education of a generation of schoolchildren. Except, of course, for those children whose mummies and daddies will always play the system ("and who can blame them?" - A. Blair).

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