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Have school league tables led to more socially segregated neighbourhoods?

By Chris A Garrington, on 24 January 2023

In the early 1990s, parents in England were given access to league tables based on school performance which gave them more information when deciding where their kids would go to school. In this blog Dan McArthur and Aaron Reeves share findings of research which used the ONS Longitudinal Study and which found quantifying school quality had the unintended consequence of increasing the geographical concentration of advantage, potentially entrenching inequalities. 

Where we grow up matters: a childhood in a neighbourhood where the majority of people are materially deprived can lead to lower earnings, a less prestigious occupation and even a lower life expectancy. Neighbourhoods matter because they contain important local services such as hospitals that can have a profound impact on what happens in our lives. Parents sense that neighbourhoods (and the local services available within them) matter and so areas perceived to have high quality services typically have higher house prices, and this can to segregation because less affluent families find it harder to stay in or move to neighbourhoods where the quality of these local services is perceived to be good.

Education is particularly important because school quality can have a major influence on adult life chances, and British parents pay a substantial house price premium to gain access to good schools. This can be self-perpetuating. School league tables at least in part reflect the social composition of the pupils: middle class children tend to perform well, and this pushes their schools up the rankings. Better-off parents move to be near successful schools, and in doing so help those schools to become even more successful. Conversely, the process leads to less successful schools facing a downward spiral as parents who are able to move away from them choose to do so.

The very act of measuring school quality, then, has the potential to deepen divisions between advantaged and disadvantaged residential areas. To explore this possibility, we carried out two studies to explore what happened after the introduction of GCSE league tables in England, which provide a clear and simple (albeit controversial) measure of school quality. 

Our first study compared census data from 1981 to 2011 on the social class composition of neighbourhoods with school performance data, and showed that areas with better-performing schools saw greater increases in the proportion of professional and managerial people among their populations.

Our second study used the ONS Longitudinal Study, a one per cent sample of English and Welsh census records and life-events data, to study individual-level patterns of residential mobility. We found people with professional or managerial occupations became more likely to move to areas with better schools after the introduction of school league tables. However, this only occurred if those people had school-age children: this provides us with strong evidence that those who were most able and most incentivised to benefit from the introduction of league tables did indeed alter their patterns of residential mobility in response to their introduction.

Indirect links

We could not directly ask parents why they moved to a particular area, and we could not see which schools their children subsequently attended, but our study does provide substantial indirect evidence that league tables drove a change in class-specific patterns of residential mobility. We do, however, consider alternative explanations for the changes we see over time. For example, it might be the case that middle class parents became more concerned about their children’s educational prospects during this period; but we find no evidence of a change in this direction. By ruling out these alternative explanations, we can be more confident that the change was driven by the change of policy rather than by other factors.

Would these findings be replicated elsewhere? We believe they would: England’s schools are funded via a centralised system which also redistributes funding to areas where there is educational disadvantage, and in places where this is not the case, such as the United States, the effect may in fact be more pronounced.

We believe the alluring simplicity of league tables based on exam performance may reduce the importance of more informal sources of information for parents. Before the league tables were published, families gleaned background on schools through local networks, as well as ad hoc publicity around the particular successes of individual schools. League tables changed their perspective – what may previously have seemed a good local school may have suffered in comparison with a more successful school further away, and in fact the average distance children travel to school has almost doubled since the 1980s.

We know from other research that there are class differences in how families respond to league tables. Those in less advantaged homes may put more weight on proximity, for instance, and may give their children more say. Those with professional and managerial jobs are more likely to take the lead in the decision, and also to be focused on entry to an elite university. But there are also financial reasons why a middle-class family is more likely to move into the catchment of a good school: those on lower incomes are often unable to afford to do so.

Wider implications

Our research showed that the share of professional and managerial residents increased fastest in local authorities with high-performing schools. It also found those in advantaged social classes became more likely to move to areas with high-performing schools after the introduction of league tables, but only if they had school-aged children. 

This does not necessarily mean that league tables will always lead to a greater geographical concentration of advantage – other background factors such as school funding policies and the level of house price inequality will also play a part. But we can say that quantifying quality in this way reveals inequalities in performance which were previously opaque. It also increases the likelihood that good schools will do even better as successful families move into new catchment areas.

This matters because the measurement of school quality is a political choice, albeit one which – as we have shown – has unintended consequences. League tables enable parents to make informed choices, and may even improve teaching quality, according to some research. But in doing so they deepen the geographical concentration of disadvantage, and they potentially affect the life chances of children whose parents are unable to move into the catchment of successful schools.

‘The Unintended Consequences of Quantifying Quality: Does Ranking School Performance Shape the Geographical Concentration of Advantage?’ by Daniel McArthur and Aaron Reeves, was published in The American journal of sociology: https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/10.1086/722470

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