Parents and the diversity of secondary education

A discussion paper by

Professor John Coldron

Centre for Education Research and Social Inclusion,

Sheffield Hallam University

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Choice and diversity are at the heart of current education policy in England. They serve the overarching aim of customising the education system the central characteristic of which will be:

…personalisation – so that the system fits to the individual rather than the individual having to fit to the system…And the corollary of this is that the system must be both freer and more diverse…so that there really are different and personalised opportunities available (DfES, 2004 p.10)

The concept of personalisation is subject to conflicting interpretations but Harris and Ranson (2005) helpfully identify two dimensions. The first is focused on the experience of the pupil to give them more choice and greater differentiation of educational provision within schools to meet their individual needs. The second is to customise provision for parents by extending choice between schools.

Underlying the legitimacy claimed for policies to increase choice and diversity between schools is that parents want more choice and it is in their best interests. But relatively little study has been done on the way in which parents perceive choice and diversity (as opposed to the way they make choices) and there are many questions to which we do not know the answer. We do not know whether parents want more choice. Greater choice does not necessarily lead to greater satisfaction and may well result in disappointment, anxiety and anguish. The often deep anxiety surrounding school choice is a consistent finding of the parental choice literature. We do not know what choice means to parents. Studies report, puzzlingly, that parents want choice but also wish that all schools were equally good so that choosing did not matter. Do they want choice in order to avoid a ‘bad’ school or to maximise preferences?

In relation to diversity there are equally challenging questions. For example there is the problem of logistics. How much diversity would there need to be to maximise parental preferences? Will it ever be possible to provide that level of diversity? How aware are parents of diversity? The existence of diversity or the theoretical right to choose do not necessarily mean increased perception of choice or increased actual availability. What matters to parents is not what national statistics say but what choice and diversity they find in their actual field of choice. Then there is the question of fair admissions. Do/will all parents have equal access to the increased diversity of schools? Is diversity associated with more or less segregation on the basis of social background?

The current government is introducing a number of policies to increase diversity. The 14 to 19 White Paper (DfES 2005) aims to differentiate both structure and curriculum with sixth form colleges leading on general/academic provision and Further Education Colleges leading on vocational and skills provision. The commitment to choice and diversity is clear in the Further Education and Training Bill (DfES 2006):

The Bill will secure choice and diversity. The LSC will be placed under a duty to create greater opportunities for learners and employers to exercise choice in type, place and form of learning.

The Bill will secure new further education delivery models. The existing powers of the LSC and FE colleges will be extended, enabling them to establish companies and charitable incorporated organisations for educational purposes.

The introduction of Trust schools and Academies to the Foundation, Voluntary Aided and Community schools encourages a greater range of providers and increases diversity of types of school. The very great increase in the number of specialist schools is intended to offer diversity of curriculum emphasis to meet the needs of children with particular aptitudes. The endorsement of faith schools is a means of offering differing moral and religious contexts for education. The questions posed above are directly relevant to these significant initiatives and to the current thrust of policies.

The Research and Information on State Education (RISE) Trust provided funding to facilitate informed discussion of the policy of diversity and choice in relation to this range of questions. This paper does not present solutions but gathers together current evidence and tries to make what I hope are some useful distinctions relevant to the debate.

I look first at how we might distinguish different kinds of diversity. Then, using these distinctions, gather evidence as to how much of these kinds of diversity parents are likely to experience currently. The paper then raises some questions as to the logistics of choice and diversity before turning to consider the experience of school choice. Finally a significant methodological issue is raised and a suggestion made for overcoming it. The paper concludes with questions for future research.

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