Parental choice of school is not the answer to social integration

25 April 2019

Parental choice of school is associated with higher levels of segregation among school children from different socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds, according to a new Nuffield-funded report from researchers at the University of Bristol and Cardiff University.

The research shows that far from encouraging integration and equal opportunity, choice-based systems are associated with higher levels of pupil segregation; potentially leading to schools that are more homogenous in their social composition. This finding is consistent across different school choice systems internationally, which researchers say highlights the need for policymakers to reconsider the effects of school admissions policies.

Professor Deborah Wilson from the University of Bristol and co-author of the study, said: “We already know that children’s school years are a major determinant of their future life chances. The mechanisms by which students are allocated to schools play a fundamental part in determining access to educational opportunities. What our study shows is that school choice, while politically popular, is not the policy instrument by which greater integration of pupils across schools can be achieved.” 

Parental choice of school has been part of the education system in England and Wales since 1988 and is similarly well established in countries such as the United States, Chile and across Europe, where choice-based mechanisms are now frequently part of school admissions policies. 

The aim of this study was to contribute to the debate on the effects of choice-based admissions mechanisms on pupil allocation and school composition by conducting a systematic, international, cross-disciplinary review.

Researchers mapped the evidence that relates parental exercise of choice to the institutional context in which it takes place (admissions policies), and to the outcomes of that process in terms of the resulting allocation of pupils to schools. 

The study found: 

  • School choice is consistently associated with higher levels of segregation of pupils between schools, in different countries and across choice systems that have been in place for different lengths of time.
  • Local factors - such as the social composition of the neighbourhood, the size of the school district and the number of schools in an area - affected how different types of pupils were allocated to different schools. 

The report recommends that school admissions should be coordinated at urban municipal/local authority, or equivalent level, rather than being at the discretion of individual schools.