How do parents choose a school?

Written by: Karen Wespieser | Published:

What do parents look for and prioritise when it comes to choosing a school for their children? A research project has sought to answer this question. Karen Wespieser reports

As the end of the summer term approaches, schools across the country will begin thinking about the 2016 round of new pupil admissions. In doing so, you might like to consider NFER’s new data on the factors that inform school choice. In particular, NFER has uncovered stark differences in what parents are looking for, dependent on their personal background factors.

Choosing a school is one of the key times when parents reflect on what is important to them in terms of their child’s education. Some commentators hail this ability to choose as a key feature of our education system – an important right valued by parents, and a way of driving up standards. But to what extent is this view shared by parents – do they feel they have a genuine choice, and if so how do they choose?

At the beginning of the year, NFER commissioned a nationally representative survey of 1,005 parents of children aged five to 18 to find out more.

Parents feel they have a genuine choice

One of the first things we wanted to understand was whether parents genuinely felt they had a choice when choosing a school. In 2014, according to Department for Education (DfE) figures, nearly 90 per cent of parents got their first choice of school for their children. Most respondents to our survey (72 per cent) also felt they had a choice, although slightly fewer got their first choice – highlighting that in some instances there may only be one real option available.

However, it should be noted that while research has shown that although it appears that choice is supported in theory, the reality is more complex. For example, analysis of the British Social Attitudes Survey suggests that support for choice is counterbalanced by, among other things, opposition to vouchers, school diversity, and by strong support for the idea of sending children to the “nearest state school” (1).

But local factors are the most important

We wanted to know what elements parents considered important when making their decision. In line with existing research we found that local factors are paramount – “school that suits my child” and “location” of the school were each identified by almost half of respondents to our survey (see below, graph 1).

Now, obviously there are some factors that schools cannot influence – you can’t change the location of your school or its catchment zone. However, there are some things that may seem important to you – such as exam results – which this data suggests is less important to parents.

When talking to parents, writing your prospectus or updating your website, you may therefore want to think about how you describe the overall ethos of the school, and the extent to which this enables parents to make informed choices about how well this will suit their children. And where you have a strong record on discipline and behaviour, the responses to our survey suggest this is likely to be appealing to parents.

Looking more closely at the detail, the data also reveals some interesting differences between the importance attributed to different factors by parents with different levels of household income (see graph 2).

Location, well-qualified teachers and community links are more important to parents with a lower household income, while discipline, exam results and the effectiveness of the school’s senior leadership team are more important to parents with a higher household income. Depending on the demographic of your local area, you may want to consider this when talking to perspective parents.

How are parents making these decisions?

Most parents undertake a range of activities to help decide which school their child should attend, in particular undertaking their own research and attending open evenings or school visits.

Headteachers should be heartened to see the high take-up of the opportunities provided by schools such as open evenings. It is well worth remembering the effectiveness of these activities when putting in the extra hours that many of these tasks require of school staff.

Again though, there are some differences by household income (see graph 3). Parents’ on a lower income are more likely to let their child decide or select the school already attended by siblings. One of the activities where there is greatest disparity between income levels is the extent to which parents discuss potential schools with others. Facilitating these opportunities for parents – perhaps at open evenings – might be an interesting way to try to increase the use of this type of activity.

What are the wider implications?

The reality is that making a choice about a school depends on a myriad of local factors as well as a parents’ understanding of their own child. Better understanding these factors could prove helpful to schools targeting limited resources at the best strategies for attracting applications. Our findings also have significant policy implications.

The new government backs changes to the School Admissions Code which will prioritise children eligible for the Pupil Premium. Yet this evidence suggests that parents of these children are least likely to take advantage of any increase in their school choice as they are more concerned with location.

The NFER is not the first organisation to raise these concerns. In 2013, the Sutton Trust reported that “those who adopt the choice behaviours anticipated by government policy ... are disproportionately, though by no means exclusively, middle class” (2). Similarly, a DfE report last year found that “lower socio-economic status groups may look for (factors that) ... may lead (them) to select themselves out of high performing schools” (3). The extent to which this is considered in any changes to the Admissions Code will be an important policy consideration for the new government.

Our research was based on a national sample, and so was not able to explore local variation in any detail. These issues are likely to vary considerably between areas, so why not undertake some local research of your own with existing and/or prospective parents to better understand what factors are most important to them?SecEd

  • Karen Wespieser is a senior research manager with the NFER.

  1. Exley, S (2014) Are Quasi-markets in Education What the British Public Wants? Social Policy and Administration, 48 (1). pp. 24-43. ISSN 0144-5596.
  2. Francis, B and Hutchings, M (2013). Parent Power? Using Money and Information to Boost Children’s Chances of Educational Success, The Sutton Trust.
  3. Allen R, Burgess S, and McKenna L. (2014) School Performance and Parental Choice of School: Secondary data analysis, DfE Research Report.
    Photo: iStock


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