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'Sorting' pupils by ability and income

Press release issued: 23 February 2005

New research from the Centre for Market and Public Organisation looks at 'sorting' of secondary school pupils in selective and non-selective local education authorities.

'Sorting' of secondary school pupils by ability is much higher in the small number of local education authorities (LEAs) that still run a selective system of grammars and secondary moderns.  However, this ‘segregation’ of pupils based on ability and income continues even in non-selective LEAs, according to new research from the University of Bristol.

Professor Simon Burgess and colleagues at the University’s Centre for Market and Public Organisation (CMPO) concluded that the greater the degree of choice parents have in where their children go to secondary school, the greater the sorting of children based on both ability and income.

Sorting – or how pupils get assigned to secondary schools – is a central part of the current debate on choice in education. There are basically three ways of assigning children: elite schooling, neighbourhood schooling and choice-based schooling.

Elite schooling: In England, elite schooling outside the private schools means selection, a system explicitly designed to sort pupils by their ability at age 11. This necessarily produced a system very highly segregated by pupil test scores and – because of its correlation with test scores – segregated by family background

The research confirms what we might expect: that sorting is much higher in selective LEAs than in the rest of the country. But a corollary of this finding is that the well-known grouping of parents near good schools – and the impact that has on local house price differences – is not strong enough to bring back the levels of segregation seen in selective systems.

Choice based schooling: In non-selective LEAs, the de facto system is a mix of neighbourhood schooling (children go to the nearest school) and a choice-based schooling (children go to the school chosen by their parents).

The researchers investigated the relationship between the degree of choice and the degree of sorting.  This is a complex issue.  On the one hand, increased choice might be expected to reduce pupil sorting: if all pupils in an area have the same chance to go to any school, then on average each school would have a mix of different children.

On the other hand, it might be that an area with more choice might produce a more finely segmented outcome: parents’ demand for high quality schooling can translate into a demand for good peer groups, and choice allows some to achieve this.

But popular schools cannot take all pupils that apply (indeed, some may be put off applying by the low chance of success) and have to assign scarce places, so ‘choice’ becomes choice by both parents and schools, and the overall outcome depends on the admissions process.  In this context, choice by one has effects on others – one child going to a particular school reduces the chance of others going.

Residential sorting and school sorting: the impact of choice: To examine the potential role of school choice, the researchers compare the sorting of pupils in their neighbourhoods (residential segregation) with the sorting of the same pupils in their schools.  Higher school segregation relative to neighbourhood segregation is indicative of the ‘re-sorting’ process involved in school choice.

The degree of choice is measured as the number of schools within easy reach. Overlaying school locations with a road network, it is possible to construct 10-minute drive-time zones around schools.  Simply counting the number of schools within this area provides a measure of the extent of choice in a local area.

Analysis of the relationship between the degree of choice and post-residential re-sorting for non-selective LEAs shows that a greater degree of choice is strongly associated with greater sorting by both ability and disadvantage.  This can be understood two ways:

  • First, more choice means that parents can select from a greater number of schools and hence find one close to their ideal, conditional on where they live.
  • Or second, more choice means that given the desired school, parents have greater scope to live where they choose, not necessarily right next to the school.

Greater school choice allows more dispersion of where people choose to live, and thereby potentially more heterogeneous communities, at the potential cost of more segregated schools.

‘Sorting Matters: Choice and Selection in English Schools’ by Simon Burgess, Brendon McConnell, Carol Propper and Deborah Wilson is published in the Winter 2005 issue of the bulletin of the Centre for Market and Public Organisation.

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