Social Class Differences in Educational Achievement [2] : The Schools – Secondary School Choice

Russell Haggar

Site Owner

Parts List

Part One: Some Introductory Links Followed By Early Investigations - Click Here
Part Two: Some More Recent Investigations - Click Here
Part Three: School Effectiveness Research - Click Here
Part Four: Secondary School Choice
Part Five: Summary and Conclusions - Click Here

Social Class Differences in Educational Achievement [2] : The Schools

Part 4

Secondary School Choice

In their study “Markets, Choice and Equity in Education ” [1995]  Ball, Bowe and Gerwitz criticised Conservative education policies designed to provide parents with a wider choice of schools for their children because in their view middle class parents and their children would be especially likely to benefit from this choosing process because they possess the cultural and economic capital to choose more effectively. With regard to parental choice, Gerwitz, Ball and Bowe distinguish between mainly middle class “privileged choosers” and mainly working class “semi-skilled and disconnected choosers” admitting however that these categories are , to some extent ideal types and that many parents may be difficult to classify exactly.

Privileged choosers are overwhelmingly middle class and are likely to opt either for private education or for the more successful state schools. To achieve this objective they may have purchased expensive houses in the catchment areas of effective state secondary schools; they may have chosen Middle Schools which are known to have especially good links with effective secondary schools ; they can afford to organise any necessary transport arrangements if the required schools are some distance away; they are both willing and able to take the time to assess information relating to examination results and related issues; they are comfortable in discussions with teachers and also ready to challenge them if they feel it to be necessary; they are familiar with sometimes complex application processes all of which puts them at an advantage in securing their children’s entrance to the more effective schools.

By contrast “disconnected choosers” are primarily working class and are more likely to opt for their local neighbourhood school which consequently is likely to have a more working class intake. These parents certainly do show considerable interest in their children’s education but their choice of secondary school is often not seen as especially important because “they typically see all schools as much the same”. For this reason they are very likely to choose the secondary school in their own neighbourhood partly for reasons of convenience and partly because financial and time constraints inhibit their abilities to organise transport to more distant schools. They may also be influenced by friends, neighbours and relatives with similar views and their choice of school may to some extent reflect their sense of belonging to their own local, working class community. Thus the authors conclude that ” choice is very directly and powerfully related to social class differences” and that ” choice emerges as a major new factor in maintaining and indeed reinforcing social class differences and inequalities”.

The ERA has also had important implications for the organisation of schools themselves as they must give more attention to marketing methods if they are to maintain student numbers and especially if they are to attract the middle class children who are most likely to boost league table performance. Individual schools may have some freedom of manoeuvre to decide upon their response to the implications of the ERA and if Governors, Head teachers and senior staff are very committed to the ideals of comprehensive education and do not face strong competition from rival schools the impact of the ERA may be limited . However  this is unlikely  and Ball et al suggest that the 1988 Education Reform Act  has influenced school policy in several ways: it is more likely that resources may be diverted from actual teaching to improvements in the school buildings; new reception areas may be built; more professional prospectuses may be designed; open evenings are carefully choreographed; music and drama may be given a higher profile partly in and attempt to appeal to middle class parents.

Insofar as successful schools succeed in attracting increasing numbers of mainly middle class pupils via careful marketing of the good examination results the  financial resources available to less successful schools in mainly working areas will decline leading to declining educational opportunities for the mainly working class pupils who still opt to attend these schools. The processes of increased parental choice under the terms of the  Education Reform Act 1988 were therefore likely to result in increased inequality of educational opportunity.

Click here for a recent Guardian article on extent to which parents are prepared to move house into catchment areas of popular schools. September 2015

It is clear also that although examination results vary considerable as between different schools this does not necessarily mean that schools with the better examination results are the more effective schools. We must note also that the characteristics of the pupil intakes of these different schools are significantly different and that differences in pupil intakes of different schools will have a major impact on individual schools’ examination results. Pupils with high prior attainment at primary level are most likely to gain good results at secondary level; girls achieve better results than boys; Chinese and Indian pupils are the most successful ethnic groups; children eligible for free school meals are less successful than pupils ineligible for free school meals; pupils living in deprived neighbourhoods are less successful than those from affluent neighbourhoods; children from lone parent families, children whose parents themselves have limited educational qualifications, pupils with special educational needs and pupils in care are all  less likely to be educationally successful.

In their recent study [published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation] of the factors causing relative educational failure among 16 year old state school pupils Robert Cassen and Geeta Kingdon have calculated that once differences in pupil characteristics have been allowed for, differences in in school quality contribute 14% to the overall explanation of educational failure ,a result which they point out is very much in line with other research studies. This suggests clearly that if the extent of educational failure is to be reduced ,educational reform, important as it is, must be combined with wider social reform.

Click here for BBC summary coverage of recent Joseph Rowntree Foundation reports on patterns of educational achievement.

Click here for a summary of Robert Cassen and Geeta Kingdon’s research paper. This research paper is technically complex and even the summary is very detailed such that you may at this stage prefer to rely mainly on the previous link to the shorter BBC summary which effectively emphasises the key findings of a recent series of Joseph Rowntree publications  including the research of Robert Cassen and Geena Kingdon.

Update March 2015 

Despite the criticisms of the quasi-marketisation of education advanced by Ball, Bowe and Gerwitz [see above] and others this process accelerated under Labour governments  [1997-2010] and under the current Coalition government [2010-15] both of which continued to claim that quasi-marketisation could drive up educational standards including the standards of the more disadvantaged pupils.

One of the most significant aspects of this process has been the Academies Programme  which was introduced by the Labour Government in 20023 and accelerated significantly under the Coalition Government. A large number of studies of Labour’s Academies programme have been undertaken although it is generally agreed that it is too some to evaluate the effectiveness of new academies opened by the Coalition. Many of the Coalition’s academies  are converter academies which differ in important respects from the sponsored academies  opened by Labour although a fairly large number of Coalition academies are also sponsored academies.


In Feb 2015 The House Of Commons Education Select Committee published its  Report on Academies and Free Schools. {Click here for the full report on Academies and Free Schools   and scroll to Section 2  pp 10-24 for the section on Academisation and Pupil Progress]

The members of this committee have been advised by Professor Stephen Machin who has himself conducted important and highly respected research on the possible effects of academisation on pupil attainment some of which is summarised in my own summary document on Academies. The Committee concentrate their research primarily on the effects of sponsored academisation on pupil progress arguing that it is to soon too assess the effects of the Converter Academies.

Their key conclusion is that “Current evidence does not allow us to draw firm conclusions on whether academies are a positive force for change. According to research we have seen, it is too early to judge whether academies raise standards overall or for disadvantaged children. This is partly a matter of timing. We should be cautious about reading across from evidence about pre-2010 academies to other academies established since then.”

With regard to the Sponsored Academies and attainment  the main points included in the Report include the following.


  •  There is evidence that rates of improvement in GCSE pass rates [5 or more A*-C GCSE pass rates] have been faster in sponsored academies.
  •  However given that attainment levels in sponsored academies started from a lower level some narrowing of the attainment gap between sponsored academies and non –academies was to be expected.
  •  It is also important to note that despite some relative improvement attainment levels in sponsored academies have remained below the average national level  although this is entirely predictable given that the original sponsored academies were set up in areas of relative social deprivation
  •  In any case there as significant differences in attainment levels as between individual  academies and between academy chains. The ARK and Harris chains have been especially successful but others have not.
  •  here is evidence that although the main benefit of academisation is said to be increased individual school autonomy many academies are not actually modifying school practices very significantly.
  •   Insofar as attainment levels in sponsored academies are improving more rapidly this may be due to the fact that academy students have been entered disproportionately for “GCSE Equivalent” courses rather than actual GCSE courses. Attainment levels in sponsored academies tend to be muchlower when only GCSE courses are considered.
  •  Although the DfE argue that the rate of improvement in GCSE pass rates of pupils eligible for free school meals is faster in sponsored academies than in comparable non –academies this has been disputed by other analysts such as Henry Stewart.
  •   It has been argued, most notably by O. Silva and S. Machin, that sponsored academies have done little to improve the attainment levels of pupils considered to be in the lowest 20% of the ability range.
  •   There is evidence of strong improvement in non-academies suggesting that academisation  is certainly not the only route to school progress.
  •   There are claims that high quality leadership, high quality teaching and sufficient capital resources are more important determinants of pupil progress.


With regard to Converter Academies the main conclusions of the Report are as follows

  •   It is in general far too soon to assess whether academisation has led to increased pupil progress given that these schools have only experienced academisation for a maximum of four years.
  •   The vast majority of Converter Academies were high performing schools , often with relatively socially advantaged intakes and so one would have expected continued improvement in such schools irrespective of academisation.


Academies, The Conservatives and the General Election

  • Not withstanding the conclusions of the Select Committee David Cameron has announced that if the Conservatives win the forthcoming General Election his Government intends to target “mediocrity” within the education by means of further expansion of academisation , a proposal which has quickly attracted criticism from educationalists.  Click here  and here for BBC coverage and here for Guardian coverage of Conservative plans for further mass academisation.
  •   Click here  and here and here for articles on Academies from The Conversation
  • This concludes the section on Academies for the time being. There will be continuing controversies as to their effectiveness for the foreseeable future which you can follow in the press and broadcast media. For example you may click here the Guardian’s regularly updated archive of articles on Academies.
  •  Free Schools

Another important extension of quasi-marketisation by the Coalition has been the introduction of Free Schools which are a special type of Academy.

 Click here for Free Schools Q and A  and here for  a BBC item for and against free schools and here for a critical item from the New Statesman and here for BBC coverage of a Conference for supporters of Free Schools and here for Observer coverage of Labour policy in relation to untrained teachers in Free Schools and Academies. Click here for an Independent article on the variety of Free Schools and here  and here for a similar Guardian articles.

The setting up of Free Schools was proposed in the Conservative Manifesto of 2010 and given approval in the Academies Act of 2010 which also paved the way for existing state primary and secondary schools to become Academies. Free Schools are established as Academies independent of Local Authorities and with increased control of their curriculum, teachers’ pay and conditions  and the length of the school day and terms. They may be set up by groups of parents , teachers, businesses, universities, trusts and religious and voluntary groups but are funded by central government. Note also that several Free Schools have been set up by chains which already run several Academies and that some Free Schools have transferred from the Private to the State sector.

21 Free Schools were set up in In England in September 2011 and as of September 2013 174 Free Schools were in operation.  One Free School was closed in December 2013

[Click here for information from the BBC]

The New Schools network has been set up as a charity with government funding to advise groups wishing to set up Free Schools and such groups are also very likely to contract an Education Provider to deliver the educational services necessary for the running of the schools although such education providers are not currently allowed to make a profit out of the running of the schools.

Click  here  for some free schools complexities of statistics and further information

The Government’s decision to fund the setting up or Free Schools can be seen as an important aspect of its general support for the operation of a quasi-market in education. Thus it is argued that in localities where parents or teachers or other groups believe that the local authority schools are unsatisfactory they will now have the opportunity to set up Fee Schools and that increased competition between the new Free Schools and existing local authority schools will drive up overall educational standards as has occurred , according to the Government, in Sweden where such a system is in operation. Furthermore the UK Government claim that the introduction of Free Schools will increase equality of educational opportunity for disadvantaged pupils currently being taught in under-performing local authority schools. [However, as is indicated in some of the links critics argue that the UK Government’s interpretation of the Swedish experience with Free Schools is not entirely accurate.

The UK Government’s case in favour of Free Schools is essentially that the operation of the quasi -market will drive up average educational standards and that disadvantaged pupils will benefit from this but the scheme has also been subjected to substantial criticisms as listed below.

  1. It is claimed that they will be set up disproportionately in affluent neighbourhoods and that they may attract “better” teachers from local authority schools
  2. They may be set up in areas where local authority schools are already undersubscribed thus wasting resources.
  3. They may attract the better performing pupils from local authority schools thereby undermining them
  4. The combined effects of points 1-3 may be that they lead gradually to the development of a two-tier education system.
  5. There is a danger that although Free School Education Providers are not currently allowed to make a profit this condition could be relaxed in the future leading to the indirect privatisation of parts of the education system.
  6. Free Schools do not need to employ qualified teachers [which to some extent negates the second part of point above.
  7. They may give too much freedom to faith based schools or fundamentalist agendas although the UK Government point out that safeguards ensure that  such schools must teach a broad and balanced curriculum and that creationism must not be taught as a valid scientific theory

Click here for  a BBC item for and against free schools which provides further very useful information relating to the above 7 points.

Click on the following links for additional information  if required

Click here for BBC coverage of critical OFSTED report on Muslim Free School

Click herehere and here for BBC coverage of possible Coalition conflicts over Free Schools and Academies

Click here for full and regularly updated Guardian coverage of Free Schools [ 433 articles as of December 14th 2013]

Click here and here and here and here and here for further information from the BBC.

Click here and here for items from the Daily Telegraph .



Part Five: Summary and Conclusions - Click Here

 Return to Part One: Some Introductory Links Followed By Early Investigations - Click Here

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