Earlier today, I was reading through the various Twitter posts on my account for professional purposes and I was struck by one reply to a question about parents were satisfied about the quality of teaching a child receives at a school: the poster claimed to be happy with the school where her child was as she had spent three years researching various school and making sure that the school was in the right (my emphasis) catchment area…
So – there are right and wrong catchment areas, are there? This instantly took me back to thinking of how many parents choose to move closer to a preferred choice school to be within its catchment area. This phenomenon is well documented: for instance, in a Sutton Trust study of 1,173 parents of school-age children, Francis and Hutchings (2013) have found that almost a third of the wealthiest parents had moved into an area specifically in order to gain access to good schools as opposed to just a little more than 1 in 10 of the poorest ones. 2% of the parents stated that they had bought a second home and used its address on a school application. Francis commented on how having access to greater funds undermines the idea of equal opportunities. Hamnett & Butler (2013) argue that the system that allocates pupils to schools on the basis of distance reproduces – and potentially increases – already-existing social inequalities. They suggest that not only some parents search for higher-performing schools, but wish to avoid schools with more pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds in belief that their own children would be disadvantaged through “social contagion” (p.318). The researchers remind of the social class and educational attainment: the highest attaining schools are usually in middle-class residential areas whilst the least popular schools – tending to be lower on parental lists of school preferences – are located in more deprived areas. House prices in such areas tend to increase (Cheshire and Sheppard, 2004, in Hamnett and Butler, 2013) and such areas become more and more socially exclusive. Lupton reports on findings from several other studies (Opdenakker and Van Damme, 2001; Lupton, 2005 and Thomson, 2002, in Lupton, 2006) on links between good learning environment and school composition and the importance of neighbourhood composition, suggesting that a school located in a disadvantaged neighbourhood may make achieving good school quality far more difficult.
The discussion above attempts to identify some of the many factors contributing to social equalities and social immobility that affects thousands of pupils across the country. IPPR (2012) states that the link between poverty and educational achievement is well known and quotes DfE’s (2012) own data: in 2012, a mere 34% of students on Free School Meals achieved 5 good GCSEs as opposed to the 62% of the better-off pupils. In addition, pupils living in the most deprived postcodes, score on average 320 points (equal to about 8 Cs) as opposed to those living in the wealthiest postcodes scoring on average 380 points (equal to slightly above 8 Bs). To me, this is equality of opportunity going straight out of the window. And whilst the achievement gap is a problem not specific to England, OECD’s study of equity of systems in Europe has shown that the UK is far above the OECD’s average regarding the gap in school performance between students from different socioeconomic backgrounds (slope of socio-economic gradient: Europe: 38; UK: 44). In other words, the impact of socio-economic background here on student attainment is greater than is usual in Europe.
Perhaps the most shocking, however, are findings from the 2013 Sutton Trust report into the social composition of our 500 top comprehensive schools. The average FSM rates in the top 500 comprehensives is just 7.6%, compared to 16.5% secondary school average. 95% of the top 500 comprehensives have a lower proportion of FSM pupils intake than their respective local areas.
Therefore, are these the right catchment areas spoken of in the Twitter post I mentioned at the beginning of this article? Is this truly the message we want to send out there? That is, that having the money will “buy” your education and better future prospects? That those who have often been less fortunate (often from birth) in acquiring financial stability and with less purchasing power have to accept that they will have fewer opportunities in life? That some of us are better and will be in the right area? Aren’t schools meant to be about social equality rather than sites of marketing and competition?
This is a very controversial matter and perhaps, for a parent of a child, it is unthinkable to not do their best to ensure their future. The trouble is that, when one looks at the entire educational system and educational opportunities provided, it might be at the expense of others, quite often already less fortunate. Buying a home close to a better school by those who can afford it could potentially be seen as creating “ghettos of opportunities” for the more fortunate ones, perpetuating the already-existing social arrangements. The state and schools have the responsibility to ensure social equality – but, clearly, the distance-based system is often abused by those who can and want to abuse it.
I work at a secondary school with the FSM rate over 40%, making this topic very close to my heart. I will leave you with a list of questions, some rhetorical, some controversial, but all pertaining to social equality and providing all pupils with equal chances. Some of them, you might feel, might be emotionally challenging. It is vital to ask them, however, as we cannot afford not addressing this issue. We cannot ignore it since, as Gentleman and Mulholland (2010) pointed out 4 years ago already, we live in a country “where the richest 10% of the population are more than 100 times as wealthy as the poorest 10% of society.” If we do not tackle this situation, it could lead to more unrest and discontent of the type witnessed in London in 2011.
- Should schools adopt different admission criteria such as lotteries or banding (accepting approximately equal numbers of students of different abilities) on a far greater scale to ensure greater social class representation amongst their students? Currently, 1 in 12 schools uses an admission system different to catchment-based ones (Paton, 2014).
- What are the advantages and disadvantages of adopting a lottery-based system of school admission?
- Should there be any schools at all who can control their own admission procedures?
- Is there a place for exclusive schools such as independent and faith schools (admitting students on the basis of religion or ability to pay) at all?
- What moral obligation do parents from middle class and upper class backgrounds have towards those from deprived background when choosing (or not) to move into the catchment area of a “good” school for the specific purpose of obtaining a place there for their child? Do they have a moral obligation towards those with weaker or non-existent purchasing power?
- For the benefit of the society and on moral grounds, do you think it is justifiable to engineer socially mixed and balanced school intakes in order for everyone to benefit from similar educational opportunities? Do you think it is worthwhile and morally justifiable to “sacrifice” some pace of educational attainment for middle- and upper-class students for the benefit of lower- and working-class students and equalizing the attainment and progress chances for all?
- How important to you is the proximity of a secondary school to where you live?
- What moral responsibility do you feel we have when you read that only almost half as many FSM students are able to gain 5 good GCSEs compared to other students?
- Should A*-C results of schools with particularly low FSM / Pupil Premium intake be treated differently to schools located in deprived boroughs / areas? Does 10% grade improvement in a year at a school with 5% FSM mean the same as in a school with 45% FSM?
- “A disadvantaged neighbourhood context may make school quality harder to achieve.” (Lupton, 2006, p.6) Should schools and their staff be judged differently (by governmental bodies such as Ofsted) dependent on their neighbourhood context?
Clifton, J. and Cook, W. (2012) Closing the Attainment Gap in England’s Secondary Schools: A Long Division. London: IPPR
Francis, B. and Hutchings, M. (2013) Parent Power: Using money and information to boost children’s chances of educational success. Available at: <http://www.suttontrust.com/public/documents/parentpower-final.pdf> [Accessed 23 March 2014]
Gentleman, A. and Mulholland, H. (2010) Unequal Britain: richest 10% are now 100 times better off than the poorest. Available at: <http://www.theguardian.com/society/2010/jan/27/unequal-britain-report?guni=Article:in%20body%20link> [Accessed 23 March 2014]
Hamnett, Ch. and Butler, T. (2013) ‘Distance, education and inequality’. In: Comparative Education. Vol. 49 (3). pp. 317-330.
Lupton, R. (2006) How does place affect education? London: IPPR
Paton, G. (2014) Surge in admission lotteries threatens children’s rights to place at local school. Available at: <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/10656101/Surge-in-admissions-lotteries-threatens-childrens-right-to-place-at-local-school.html> [Accessed 23 March 2014]
The Sutton Trust (2013) Selective comprehensives: The social composition of top comprehensive schools. Available at: <http://www.suttontrust.com/public/documents/topcomprehensives.pdf> [Accessed 23 March 2014]