Wednesday 18 December 2013

Parent Power for all

In my latest Sutton Trust blog, I look at the new Parent Power? report published today.

A spate of reports in recent weeks has told differing stories about England’s education system. PISA’s international survey showed a school system that is standing still, with no improvement in our test scores or in our middling position in the ranks of the OECD.

However, the chief inspector’s annual report and the primary league tables last week suggested a more nuanced picture: inner London boroughs improving rapidly and narrowing the attainment gap, leaving many shires and coastal authorities languishing behind.

But while Sir Michael Wilshaw’s view of the ‘unlucky child’ being a victim of geography is backed by the recent improvements in the capital, there is undoubtedly also a case that ‘unlucky’ children lose out on access to many of the most successful schools because they are born into low or middle income households.

That is something confirmed by today’s remarkable new Sutton Trust report, Parent Power?,  by Professor Becky Francis, of King’s College London and Professor Merryn Hutchings, of London Metropolitan University. Drawing on YouGov interviews with 1,173 parents of school-age children, the report shows the extent to which parents’ ability to pick a good school is dependent on ability to pay.

Some of the report’s findings on the prevalence of private tuition or parents’ willingness to pay for private education if they can afford it echo earlier polling for the Sutton Trust and other organisations, including the Independent Schools Council.

The report puts figures on a phenomenon we all know happens, but which has not been properly documented previously, one which contributes to the social segregation and inequality of our education system: the extent to which parents have moved house or used even more unorthodox methods, such as faking piety or accessing an accommodating address in a desirable catchment temporarily in order to cheat the system.

Perhaps unsurprisingly it is the middle classes who have the money and drive to make the move: almost a third of professional parents in social groups A and B has moved to an area which they thought had good schools, and 18% have moved to live in the catchment area of a specific school. A minority of parents with children at state schools also admitted to cheating the system:
·         2% of parents admitted to buying a second home and using that address so that their children could gain access to a specific school, including 5% of the upper middle classes
·         3% admitted using a relative’s address for that purpose, including 6% of the upper middle classes
·         6% admitted attending church services when they didn’t previously so their child could go to a church school, including 10% in the upper middle classes.

However, buying advantage is about more than getting into a desirable home. It is also about extending that advantage through enrichment activities while the child is still at school. And while some enrichment is free to all – open access to museums, galleries or parks, for example – other activities cost money and are disproportionately available to those who can pay for them.

Our report todays shows  that professional parents were also more likely to pay for weekly music, drama or sporting lessons and activities outside school, with more than two-thirds (68%) of professionals doing so compared with 47% of working class parents and 31% of the lowest income parents. The gap was narrower for free cultural activities such as a visit to a museum or gallery than for paid cultural activities like attending a play or a concert.

Addressing such inequalities of access requires action. Of course, councils should do more to tackle outright fraud, but more radical change is needed. The Sutton Trust has long argued that school admissions in urban schools should use ballots (or random allocation) or banding to achieve a fairer intake. Of course, no politician wants to see a revolt by parents who can’t get their children into the school next door, so a pragmatic approach would be to mix places allocated by proximity with those allocated by ballots or banding, as Haberdashers Askes Academies in South London have done.

But opening up such schools is not enough on its own. That’s why, when I worked for Tony Blair, I helped introduce a new right of access – clauses 95 and 96 of the guidance – for pupils eligible for free school meals to free travel to a choice of three schools rather than the one designated by the local authority. These rights are very poorly publicised at the moment. It is also crucial that schools reach out to less advantaged parents, ensuring they are well informed about their options, particularly if they embrace more comprehensive admissions policies.

The enrichment shortfall demands action too. Successive governments have given schools extra money for their poorer pupils, and this Government has codified it and increased the sums available through the pupil premium, worth £900 a pupil this year and £1300 in primaries next year.

The enrichment shortfall demands action too. Successive governments have given schools extra money for their poorer pupils, and this Government has codified it and increased the sums available through the pupil premium, worth £900 a pupil this year and £1300 in primaries next year.

One sometimes forgotten aspect of the London Challenge – the programme that was key to the differential improvement  in London schools – was the London Student Pledge where pupils at the capital’s schools not only benefited from improved teaching and leadership, but they were also promised the chance to go to an artistic or sporting event at a major London venue and the chance to take part in a play and in a public event, all by age 16. Enrichment was part of the package and should be part of the pupil premium deal too.

Parent power has supposedly been around since league tables and Ofsted reports gave parents the right to pick a preferred school. But it has benefited some more than others. True parent power must be about providing fair access to good schools and to the enrichment activities that help to create successful adults.

This post also appears on the Public Finance website.