In England, children (or, most commonly, their parents) are given freedom of choice over which secondary schools they want to apply to, alongside various indicators of school quality.

The indicators exist to help parents make informed choices, and the intention is that parents prioritising the most effective secondary schools in their area will serve to generate competition between schools, and ultimately drive-up standards.  

One such indicator is a school’s ‘value-added’ score. This tries to measure the progress that pupils make since obtaining their Key Stage 2 results at the end of primary school. The value-added score is aimed at giving parents information on the quality of the school over and above GCSE results alone, which may simply reflect the academic ability of individual pupils within a given cohort.

In a new study funded by the Nuffield Foundation, researchers from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the University of California and the University of York considered whether parents prioritise highvalue-added (or ‘more effective’) schools. Using data from secondary school applications from everyone who applied to start secondary school in 2014, they found that:  

  • Parents do not consistently apply to their most effective local school. There are large gaps in the value-added of parents’ first-choice schools and the school with the highest value-added score in the local area. This suggests that factors such as distance or peer composition are also important and influence their choices of where to apply. 
  • This is especially true for parents from poorer backgrounds. On a value-added basis, the best school within relatively easy reach of poorer pupils performed similarly to the best school within relatively easy reach of richer pupils. But better-offpupils are much more likely to put a high value-added school as their first choice. The best-off pupils (in the top fifth by socio-economic status) on average stated a preference for a school two-thirds of the way up the value-added distribution. The least affluent (those in the bottom fifth by socio-economic status) tend to put schools that perform below the average on this measure as their first choice. 
  • This suggests scope for supporting less-well-off parents to identify and express a preference for more effective schools.This could result in a reduction in the gap in access to effective schools and might help to narrow gaps in GCSE attainment.  

If parents simply lack awareness of school value-added scores, then targeted information campaigns could be used to narrow application gaps.  

If parents know about value-added scores but believe their children are unlikely to be admitted to a high value-added school, then reforms to the application system to encourage more ambitious application behaviour, or changes to school admission rules to increase the chances of entry for certain types of students, might be called for.  

On the other hand, if parents are aware of effectiveness but prioritise, for example, close proximity, then changing information or application procedures is unlikely to be effective. Only policies focused on improving less well-performing schools are likely to work.  

Jack Britton, Associate Director at the Institute for Fiscal Studies, Reader in Economics at the University of York and an author of the study, said:

‘Our study reveals that parents commonly do not apply to the most effective secondary school in their local area for their children, and that this is especially true for parents living in poorer areas. This result suggests that students from poorer backgrounds could potentially access more effective schools if parental application patterns were to change, suggesting it is an area that is ripe for policy attention.’ 

Josh Hillman, Nuffield Foundation Director of Education, said:

'Parents and pupils face a number of considerations in selecting a secondary school, but this important research shows that current parental choice arrangements could be exacerbating the gap in educational opportunity and achievement between advantaged and disadvantaged young people.’