Thursday, February 21, 2008

Why Choice of School Does not Matter

It is a commonplace in British political debate that the middle classes hog all the good schools. By ‘good’ schools, I presume we mean those that get the best exam results and end up highest up the league tables. The argument, which even the Conservatives have started to make, is that a good school attracts middle class parents who move the earth to get their offspring into it, to the detriment of working class kids whose own parents are not so pushy. As a result, the Labour government spends a huge amount of political capital trying to prevent middle class parents from being able to influence the chances of their children getting places at ‘good’ schools. The latest fad is to allocate places by lottery. Both parties think that ‘good’ schools have a massive effect on the life-chances of the pupils lucky enough to attend them.

I’m sorry to say that all the premises of this debate are utter hogwash. First, let’s look at what makes a ‘good’ school. Does a school get the best exam results because of the excellence of its teachers, or the management style of its headmaster or the religious character of its ethos? Or is it because the kids that go to that school happen to be cleverer than the ones down the road? Testing this is quite hard to do because the ‘good’ schools automatically tend to attract the clever pupils (for reasons I’ll explain in my next post). So, how can you distinguish between the push effect of good teaching and the pull effect of bright kids?

The Labour Party’s pet lottery scheme can help us. As chapter five of the book Freakonomics explains, in Chicago many school places are allocated randomly. This means that the ‘good’ schools can’t attract the bright kids because they have to go where the lottery places them. Economists examining the results of Chicago schools found that the school an individual attends has absolutely no effect on their own exam results. The schools that do best, the ones that appear ‘good’ enjoy that status thanks to the brains of their pupils, not the quality of their teaching.

Steven Pinker enthusiasts will not be surprised to learn this. Of course, intelligence is innate and where you happen to go to school won’t affect that. Nor will any other factors connected to upbringing or nurture. The Chicago economists found that factors like the number of books in the child’s home or whether their parents read to them were all as irrelevant to exam success as the school that the child went to. I am willing to admit that very bad schools probably have a detrimental effect, but I would probably put that down to the behaviour of the pupils there as well, rather than the inadequacies of the teachers.

This means that all sides in Britain can take heart. Labour can stop worrying about the middles classes hogging the places at the top schools. The workers do just as well at the schools they are at. The middle classes can relax if they can’t get their child into their first choice of school. It probably doesn’t matter anyway. The lottery system is unlikely to screw up or enhance anyone’s life chances. And as for selective schools, the panacea for the right and the bugbear of the left, they don’t make a blind bit of difference either. They do well in the league tables because they have clever kids at them, but the kids would do just as well at any school that met minimum standards.

If you thought that the Chicago experience was a one-off, a report just out finds the same results in English schools. The researchers interviewed middle class left-wing parents who sent their kids the local comprehensive as a political statement. Even though the local schools were rated as poor, the bright children of the lefties still did just as well as we would expect them to – including getting into Oxford or Cambridge. Predictably, the academics who did the research, together with the BBC reporting it, utterly misinterpret the results. They accuse the middle classes of hogging all the resources at the schools. In my next post I’ll explain why middle class children really do better than working class ones, and why there is nothing anyone can ever do about it.

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