London schools and the paradox of choice

by Stephen Tall on January 28, 2013

I’ve started reading David Boyle’s Barriers to Choice Review, published last week. David, author, academic and life-long liberal, was appointed by the cabinet office to ‘look at the barriers faced by disadvantaged people, in particular, when it came to accessing choice in public services’.

I started at the section on schools, where two of the graphs leapt out at me showing the difficulty in making choice meaningful.

First, here’s the graph showing the proportion of parents who successfully got their children into their preferred school:

school choice

The average figure in England isn’t too bad: 85% of parents got their first choice school in 2011.

But look at the regional variations — while 95% of parents in the North-East got their first choice, little more than 60% of London parents did. (A figure, incidentally, which provides some context to yesterday’s controversy about whether Nick Clegg would be justified if he and Miriam sent their eldest child to a private school.)

Yet the paradox here is that London’s schools, which a decade ago were held to be a basket-case, are now the best in the country. Even London’s poorest boroughs, such as Tower Hamlets and Hackney, out-perform the national average. So while the capital’s schools have improved at a quite remarkable pace, parents have no better than a two-thirds chance of landing their top choice for their children.

Here’s the second graph showing the proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals (ie, children from households where income is below £16k) compared with the proportion of pupils achieving 5+ A*-C GCSEs including English and Maths. I’ve customised it with two lines, marking the national averages (58% of children achieve that GCSE level, and 16% of secondary school children are eligible for free school meals):

fsm v gcse results

It’s no surprise that only a handful of schools are in the top-right quadrant (ie, schools with a higher-than-average proportion of low-income pupils which also out-perform the national GCSE average) and most of them are in — you’ve guessed it — London.

One comment

Who can’t like a blog post with good graphs?

I wonder though about the ‘paradox’ here, as there are quite a lot of other factors at work for London which could explain its hugely impressive educational improvements even if the lack of meaningful choice was depressing performance.

I’m thinking of both the various initiatives, especially to share best practice amongst schools by rotating key staff around, and also the advantage of compact geography which means schools more easily see, hear (and are pressured by?) the performance of neighbouring schools.

by Mark Pack on January 29, 2013 at 9:43 am. Reply #

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