The School Choice Admissions Race


Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit in 2010, and today, he is one of the ‘most followed educators’on social media in the world. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the ‘500 Most Influential People in Britain’ by The Sunday Times as a result of…
Read more about @TeacherToolkit

Is school choice and the admissions process good for our society?

Across England, once a year, parents find out if their children have been accepted to their preferred secondary school.

The illusion of choice

Choice offers us autonomy, but too much choice leads to dissatisfaction.

Have you ever been unhappy with the choice of food you ordered at a restaurant? Perhaps ‘the quick choice’ you must take as you stand on a shopping aisle starting at countless toothbrush colours?

Having too many choices leads us to make poorer decisions and explains why some restaurants offer no menu or food at a fixed price. It allows the restaurant to focus its energy on delivering finely executed dishes.

This raises another question: How do we get our education system to focus on supporting and nurturing all children, not just some who tip over to the ‘right’ side of the bell curve?

Valid and questionable reasons …

In England, we have a complex patchwork of schools and school types with strong local hierarchies that are difficult for families to navigate; with strong arguments that schools should no longer be their own admissions authority.

We live in an unequal society. As a result, all parents want the best for their children; therefore, some develop strong preferences for the type of school they want their children to attend.

Yet, there is inconsistent evidence that schools casually improve academic outcomes.

If this is true, why do families select a school?

There are some ambiguous benefits. The child’s choice; the closest one to school;  a great reputation; excellent exam scores; a brilliant inspection report; it’s in a fabulous area, and it’s good for house prices and so on and so forth.

There are equally some valid reasons why we should allow parents to choose a school.

In the first world country, it’s important that we have a choice. This is what living in a democracy provides.

For families, despite what the research suggests about performance, some may want to send a child to a religious school because their faith is determining factor. Others may want a grammar school, an independent miles away from home, or perhaps a specialist school because their child has neurodiverse needs and the school provides specialist support.

Whatever the reason, choice is good.

But at what cost?

  1. Are we all prepared to accept that tens of thousands of families and pupils will never get their first choice?
  2. Are we also happy that some local authorities, including some schools, engineer who attends what school?

As a secondary school parent, I’ve gone through the admissions process myself, battling admissions with a premature child and living the ‘receiving-end of school applications’ as a school leader in one of the most marketised school systems in the world.

Whilst I believe parents should have a choice, and schools should also have a thriving admissions allocation, how do we balance this against a society full of inequality and increasing marketisation of the education system? Two very simple and complex questions to answer.

Again, as ever with the rhythm of this website, I approach these questions from the perspective of ‘Ofsted inspections, questioning the reliability and validity of inspection grades imposed on all our schools and colleges.

Are school inspections a reliable indicator of school quality?

In a summary published by FFT Education Datalab, researchers ask if “Ofsted inspections are helpful for [parents] choosing a secondary school?”

They write: “When schools’ Ofsted ratings increase, the price of nearby houses also increase as parents move into the ‘catchment area’ …”

My hypotheses? That Ofsted judgements a) do not predict pupil outcomes and b) perpetuate inequality across the system; whether fuelling poverty or school choice.

I know I am not alone in this thinking, so I’ve spent the last seven years researching everything concerning Ofsted and its grading process. For example, why does government legislation allow Ofsted to police their own complaints process?

The Sutton Trust, which champions social mobility, reports that four out of five parents think school admissions should be fairer, suggesting that the current school choices system locks in inequality. FFT also speculate why there now is a “self-fulfilling prophecy in which rich parents of high achieving children buy houses near ‘Outstanding’ schools.”

The image (below left) ranks schools based on GCSE A8; pupils who attend a school with higher Ofsted grades at the time of application go on to attain higher grades. However, when control is added (below right) for “pupil prior attainment, admission type, and pupil deprivation. The difference in school rankings across the 4 Ofsted judgements now collapses!”


The research found that there were:

  1. Small differences on pupils’ absence rates
  2. No differences in parental satisfaction, despite what Ofsted report, and,
  3. No detectable difference between the bottom three judgements in terms of parent-reported behaviour standards.

The conclusion?

Ofsted reports are not a useful source of information for parental choice, and that parents should think twice before paying more money for a house because it is near a ‘Good’ school.

This will be heartbreaking news for estate agents up and down the country.

I know my views will be unpopular in some regions of the education system, but believe me, I want the highest standards for all our schools and young people. Put simply. I do not believe our current inspection system is sophisticated as it can be to support everybody living and working across the education system. It needs to be reformed.