PARENTS KNOW BETTER: Evidence from London of the benefits of school choice for pupil achievement

12 Apr 2021

Parents in London show strong preferences for primary schools with higher test scores, disclosed to the public through performance tables, and for institutions located closer to their homes, according to new research by Marco Ovidi. This holds regardless of the socio-economic background of parents, though families in better-off areas have access to substantially higher-performing schools.

The study also finds that parental preference for school is heterogeneous, with significant disagreement even in the evaluation of the same school. Parental rankings of schools suggest that when selecting schools, parents make specific judgement about their children’s situation. The findings imply that parental choice has the potential to raise educational standards by placing pupils in schools that are particularly suitable for their learning needs.

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Every year, hundreds of thousands of parents across the UK are asked to rank preferred schools for their children. Fierce competition for a place at popular institutions implies that thousands of pupils miss out on their favourite schools. With oversubscription, applicants are commonly allotted priority by distance – and it is well known how the race to gain admission sparks higher house prices in the vicinity of sought-after schools.

This study evaluates the impact of attending a school listed by parents with higher preference for pupils’ academic performance. In particular, the author compares the achievement of pupils nearly admitted to the primary school of choice to those excluded from the same institution because they are located just beyond the distance boundary for admission.

He finds that attending a more preferred school increases pupil achievement above and beyond the average progression of pupils at the same school. Results suggest that parents select schools that are particularly suitable for their children’s learning needs.

School choice is well established in England, with parents guaranteed the right of enrolling their children to the favourite school as long as demand does not exceed capacity. Assignment to school is nationally centralised and every parent in the country is notified school admission in national offer days. This study focuses on primary school choice in London, where competition for places is particularly intense and about one in five pupils fail to secure a place in their first-choice school.

The research shows that parents exhibit strong preference for schools with higher test scores, disclosed to the public through performance tables, and for institutions located closer to their residence. This holds regardless the socioeconomic background of parents, though families in better-off areas have access to substantially higher-performing schools.

Nevertheless, parental preference for school is heterogeneous, with significant disagreement even in the evaluation of the same school. Therefore, parental rankings of schools suggest that, when selecting schools, parents make specific judgement about their children’s situation.

While several studies investigate the determinants of parental preferences for schools and the impact on house prices, much less is known about the consequences for pupils who miss out on favourite schools. This study makes use of catchment boundaries generated by centralised assignment at oversubscribed schools to estimate the short-term impact of attending a preferred institution on pupil achievement.

In particular, the author compares teacher assessments of pupils with similar preferences and who are admitted to different institutions because capacity is reached at the school of choice. He then investigates whether parents are able to select schools that are specifically effective in increasing their child’s achievement by comparing the impact of attending a school listed with higher preference to the average progression of pupils at the school.

The study finds that pupils admitted to their school of choice have 13% higher chance of scoring the highest level in mathematics teacher assessments after three years with respect to pupils attending less-preferred schools with similar average progression.

These results imply that parental choice has the potential to raise educational standards by placing pupils in schools that are particularly suitable for their learning needs. Potential explanations could lie in specific school attributes such as teachers’ ability and characteristics, school proximity, or general learning environment. These are hard to disentangle with the data at hand and form interesting directions for further research.

Marco Ovidi

Catholic University of the Sacred Heart, Milan and Queen Mary University of London | m.ovidi@qmul.ac.uk