Why choice in education works

by Stephen Tall on June 25, 2006

It’s probably because I went to a single-sex school (for boys, I hasten to add) that I am utterly opposed to single-sex education.

Nothing seems so guaranteed to perpetuate the sex war than to separate boys and girls during their most formative years, only to re-unite them once their ideas about social interaction are firmly fixed. All kids deserve an all-round education that prepares them for their life to come. How some kind of perverse Platonic experiment in social engineering is designed to achieve that has never been clear to me.

Two weeks ago, St Hilda’s – Oxford University’s last single-sex college – finally bowed to the inevitable, and agreed to admit male tutors and students through its doors. Why? Certainly Oxford’s recruitment policies (unlike those of Cambridge) made it more difficult for St Hilda’s to attract high-calibre staff, especially in the sciences. But it was also, and more importantly, because fewer and fewer female Oxford applicants were choosing St Hilda’s as their preferred college. Today’s young women simply do not see why they should need to be segregated from the boys to be able to get on in life.

I work for St Anne’s College, one of the first of the women’s colleges to elect to go mixed, a generation ago, in 1978. Highly controversial at the time, there are still a handful of alumnae (albeit a diminishing number) who have never quite forgiven the College. Yet those with daughters now about to apply to Oxford, are often struck by the bemused indifference with which the prospect of ending up at an all-women college is regarded. The sex-war is by no means over, but sex apartheid is no longer seen to be the relevant battleground.

And with good reason. The single most important educational inequality today – and one which hits boys and girls alike – is social inequality: that is what is most likely to determine success or failure at school.

This is one of the conclusions which appears to have been reached by Professor Alan Smithers, of the University of Buckingham, who was commissioned by the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference to investigate the world-wide effects of single-sex education on pupils’ attainments. The findings have today been published in The Observer:

“The reason people think single-sex schools are better is because they do well in league tables,” said Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research. “But they are generally independent, grammar or former grammar schools and they do well because of the ability and social background of the pupils.” Their success should not be used to argue it is better to separate girls and boys in other settings, he added. Smithers said headteachers made “exaggerated claims” about the benefits of girl-only schools because they were under threat.

Crucial to the success of single-sex schools – whether for boys or girls – is the active engagement of parents in choosing where their child will be educated. Those parents who seek out a school for their child, for whatever reason – whether for religious, sex, ethos or curriculum reasons – are likely to be more motivated to see their child achieve.

The logic is clear. We need a range of schools which cater for the individual and various needs of children so that parents and children, together, can choose the school which best fits their aspirations. Though all schools should deliver the teaching needed for core literacy and numeracy, each school should be able to specialise, to develop ways to add value to the wider experience of its pupils.

Yes, every child should have access to a good local school. But we should recognise that for many children and their parents that is simply not enough any more. Parents want greater choice. And the evidence is that when they have that choice their children perform better.

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Slightly confused here Stephen.

I agree that those parents who are highly motivated to find a particular school for their children are likely to encourage and motivate their offspring to do well.

And having a range of different types of schools may be advantageous in the cities and large towns, where it’s possible to have a wide choice of schools within easy reach.

But is having a wider choice of schools itself going to make unmotivated parents more motivated?

by Chris Black on June 25, 2006 at 5:47 pm. Reply #

is having a wider choice of schools itself going to make unmotivated parents more motivated?

That will depend, Chris, on whether they’re unmotivated because they just don’t care; or unmotivated because they care, but cannot currently see how they can make the system work for them. I think the latter is the principal reason.

by Stephen Tall on June 25, 2006 at 6:10 pm. Reply #

Crucial to the success of single-sex schools – whether for boys or girls – is the active engagement of parents in choosing where their child will be educated. Those parents who seek out a school for their child, for whatever reason – whether for religious, sex, ethos or curriculum reasons – are likely to be more motivated to see their child achieve.

Do you have any evidence to back this statement up?

There is plenty of evidence that the children of those parents who are interersted in their children’s education do generally better.

But is there any evidence that having a choice of schools increases this effect?

My expoerience of the limited school choice we currently have is that it simply increases the polaristion between so-called ‘good’ and ‘weak’ schools, making it even harder for the teachers in schools with weaker ctachment areas, while the kids that were always going to do well at school continue to do so.

by Liberal Neil on June 26, 2006 at 10:02 am. Reply #

is there any evidence that having a choice of schools increases this effect?

Neil – surely we all take more of an interest in something we can hope to change? Part of the reason our party supports PR is because those who live in ‘safe’ seats have little incentive to cast a vote because they know it won’t make a difference. Competitive council wards and parliamentary seats make for higher turn-outs and keep those elected on their toes.

I agree with you about the problems of the current system of ‘choice’ – it doesn’t really exist, and breeds the problems you describe.

by Stephen Tall on June 26, 2006 at 11:00 am. Reply #

Quite frankly Stephen – most of the parents I know (including myself) find this idea of “choice” something we find difficult to see actually working. When schools are full with children from their catchment area (both primary schools in Headington have this problem) and then taking into consideration whether once your child is enrolled in a school that you need to know that upsetting their friendships and routines is worth the gain of moving to a new school, the concept of choice is one that although on the surface looks good frankly fails to be one that many parents can take advantage of.

What people want, as you said, is good schools not bad ones. I am sure most parents would be happy to send their children to a local catchment area school if they knew it would provide the good quality of teaching that makes children thrive.

I fully recognise that children need parents input too and we try to give our children this as well but sometimes we have experienced teachers who would prefer us not to be directly involved in our childrens education as we might teach them the “wrong way” which was ironic because in the next breath they were advocating that teaching children a variety of methods was good.

I understood where they were coming from but the point is that statements which cut off children from their parents help can mean that parents aren’t involved!

We should also provide support(financial and non) for families (traditional as well as single parent) and encourage them to give their children love and kindness cos this is the bedrock on which a stable education is formed.

Inspire the teachers (and parents) to inspire the children to work to create a life that they are “happy” with rather than a life where they have inherited they teachers/parents frustrations and unhappiness and maybe the financial/material benefits their education has provided them with but where they are bereft of happiness.

Sometimes I think that the electorate falls head long into the trap that they are being offered something that is really useful to them and then get disollusioned by what is delivered.

Forget the choice adgenda and provide good quality schools, hospitals, council services within the budget the electorate is willing to pay for!

by RichardH on June 26, 2006 at 12:16 pm. Reply #

People who call for the ‘choice agenda’ to be dropped miss the point entirely.

The current system suffers from a systematic failure to provide good schools in many areas. Much of this is to do with the monopoly on school provision (excluding those on the fringes who can afford private education or can get a scholarship to a private school).

The view that ‘parents don’t care’ is insulting in the extreme to parents. Granted, there may be a minority who simply do not care, but forcing the children of the majority who do care to suffer is a nonsense. Those who do not care are probably neglecting their children in other ways anyway, and are not going to be enough to support failing schools in a market place.

Effective choice is the only means to improve standards, more money isn’t working (then again it tends to be earmarked for headline projects rather than ensuring the basics are in place), the beaurocracy of education and the central control is stifling the whole system and discourages any experimentation. Parents and children have no say in how schools should be run, they have no option to move their child to a different school if the school doesn’t suit the child, beyond moving, something which the poorest cannot do.

Selection is by social status now, more than any other time in the past, coercion into comprehensive education and lack of choice has enforced this.

The only solution I can see is a proper voucher system. Schools which meet the minimum standards of the state (we can then rule out schools which teach extreme religious viewpoints and other things) should be able to accept vouchers for the average cost of educating a child in the state system. Parents can supplement if they wish (which experience elsewhere shows poor families are more ready and able to do than the critics say).
Parents will send their children to the best schools, if a school isn’t attracting pupils it will have to work out why and change.
Where there are special facilities needed to cater for disabilities, there can be a higher voucher value or something.

The minority of parents who don’t care will not be able to support failing schools.

Teachers should support this because it opens up their salaries to the market, stopping the government keeping their salary low with its monopoly power. The Unions will mostly oppose it however, because it restricts their power even more, they can then get on with representing their individual members rather than trying to manipulate the education system to help their vested interests.

by Tristan on June 26, 2006 at 1:51 pm. Reply #

My interest: I went to a (then) boys only boarding school and it did me no harm….:P

However I did notice in the mid-nineties an interesting sort of experiment at a pair of Catholic private schools down on the Kent coast somewhere (Ryde? perhaps) where, for reasons of money they needed to merge, so what they did was keep a mixed prep school to age eleven, then twin single sex schools from 11-GCSE and then merged again the sixth form into co-ed.

Don’t know how well it was seen to work though.

by Jock Coats on July 8, 2006 at 12:22 pm. Reply #

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