Most families do not choose to send their children to their nearest school, shows the biggest ever study of state secondary school choices in England.
More than 60% opt for a school that is further away – usually because it is higher achieving.
“Contrary to a widely-held belief, only a minority of parents choose their local school as their first option,” say researchers.
It also debunks the idea that richer families are more engaged with choices.
This study, from researchers at the universities of Cambridge and Bristol, is the most detailed examination of choices of secondary school places in England, using more than 520,000 applications from 2014 to 2015.
It found that parents were actively using the system of preferences – and were not passively accepting their nearest option.
“On average we found parents and pupils usually attempt to try to study at the highest-attaining school, rather than the one which is closest,” said Prof Anna Vignoles, from the University of Cambridge.
Despite any assumptions about the “sharp elbows” of middle-class families, there was no significant difference in behaviour between wealthier and more disadvantaged parents.
Both were similarly engaged in using choices to seek more desirable school places for their children.
Parents in poorer areas were more likely to opt for schools further away – with researchers suggesting this was because richer families were more likely to live close to high-performing schools.
On average across the country, about 39% make their nearest school their first preference.
Different parts of the country allow different numbers of preferences – usually three or six options – and the study found that where more options were offered, parents made twice as many choices.
The researchers said parents wanted to express more preferences, and having three rather than six choices could push parents into making pragmatic choices, rather than what they might really want.
‘Ambitious’ or ‘pragmatic’ choices
Parents of black and Asian children were on average likely to make more choices than parents of white children – and were more likely to seek places further from where they lived, usually for a higher-achieving school.
The study suggests that this could be because black and Asian families were less likely to live near the most sought-after schools – and so were making more use of their preferences to find a good school.
But they were also less likely than white families to get into their first preference, says the study being published in the Oxford Review of Education.
The researchers say this could be because black and Asian families were making more “ambitious” first choices, which were less likely to be available.
While the study shows families were ready to look further afield for a better school, this is still within an admissions system which often gives priority to those living closest to the school.
Rural and urban divide
The study examines the big national patterns of choices in the state sector – it does not look at individual motivations or different types of school, such as parents applying to faith schools or grammars.
In a rural area there might also only be one realistic option – and in cities some popular schools might be so oversubscribed that parents might not want to “waste” a choice on applying.
- The study showed that 35% only made one choice of school – and 97% were successful in getting a place at that school.
- 41% of white families only made one choice, compared with 12% of black families and 17% Asian families.
- 27% used all their preferences, which can be up to six schools, with 77% getting their top pick.
- Overall, 85% were successful in getting their first choice
Prof Vignoles said choices were often made with a “degree of caution”, particularly in places where there were only three preferences.
“Due to the limit in the number of options allowed, first choice schools may be ‘safe’ rather than ‘ambitious’,” she said.
Allowing parents more preferences would increase the “quality” of their choices, said Prof Vignoles.
Prof Simon Burgess, from the University of Bristol, said 85% of people getting their first choice could show people were making “pragmatic choices based on the probability of admission”.
A more successful system, he argues, could have a lower proportion getting their first pick, as it would show more people trying to get into the “best schools”.
At present, because most entry is based on how close people live to schools, he says families often “do not bother applying” to the highest-achieving schools because they have no realistic prospect of getting a place.