Why is choosing the right school for your child important? The differences between school types in England

The English education system has a variety of school types available (from privately owned to publicly funded, academies and free schools, single-sex and mixed, grammar schools and comprehensives), and deciphering the differences between them can be confusing to many parents. Too much choice can be overwhelming, but the best way to deal with the confusion is to gather together some relevant and dependable information.

School choice – in England at least – is about asserting your right to indicate a preference for your child to attend a particular school.

But ‘indicating a preference’ is not the same as ‘getting a place’ in your first-choice school, so for the 93% of children who attend state-funded schools, the next step in the process is for their highest possible school preference to be respected and acted upon.

Let’s acknowledge that – wherever you are in the process of choosing a school – some of your choices have already been made. For reasons such as family and jobs, you live in a particular place and the unavoidable fact is that, for most people, where you live affects the choices of school available to you. If you live in a densely populated area, there will be a greater number of schools closer by than if you live in a less densely populated area.

Indeed, we would argue that it’s helpful to remember the Bananarama Principle, which suggests that, to paraphrase, it’s not what type of school you’re in, it’s what happens in your school… and that’s what gets results. We know of many schools in challenging contexts and with low Ofsted ratings that are doing incredible things to serve the needs of their pupils, things that a prospective parent would only know about it they seek out dependable information from a range of sources.

Types of schools in England

Schools in England can, broadly, be grouped into two categories: those that are state-funded and those that are privately funded (sometimes known as ‘independent’ or, confusingly, ‘public’ schools). State schools in England either are funded through the local authority, or get their funding directly from central government. Private schools, on the other hand, charge a fee for the education they provide, and this is often paid directly by parents, though in some cases bursaries and scholarships are available.

This table visualises the types of state-funded schools in England.

COMMUNITY SCHOOLSFOUNDATION SCHOOLS AND VOLUNTARY SCHOOLSACADEMIES AND FREE SCHOOLSGRAMMAR SCHOOLS
Traditionally known as ‘local authority maintained schools’. They follow the national curriculum and are independent of any business or faith group.Funded by the local authority but sometimes receive support from faith groups.Funded by not-for- profit academy trusts. They operate outside of the local authority’s control.These may be run by the local authority, a foundation, or an academy trust.
These schools do not have selection tests for entry.These schools do not have selection tests for entry.These schools do not have selection tests for entry.Grammar schools select their pupils using entrance tests of academic ability.

The first two columns in the table describe schools with which most people will be familiar to some extent – many parents in England will have attended a local authority school of one kind or another. Academies, however, are a relatively new and significant development in England’s education system, and so we turn our attention to them now.

Academies

Academies were originally introduced by the Labour government in 2002 as a ‘remedial intervention’ to improve the quality of education in so-called ‘failing schools’. After the Conservative/ Liberal Democrat coalition government came into power in 2010, the number of academies began to rise dramatically. Studies into the effects of this new school type find that there has been little impact of academies per se on children’s outcomes, although some positive effects have been found (schools rated as outstanding by Ofsted before they converted to being an academy between 2010 and 2014 saw increases of around one GCSE grade in two subjects, on average).

Unlike community schools, academies do not have to follow the national curriculum (the collection of subjects that children in primary schools and secondary schools learn, and the standards they should meet in them), but they do have to offer something of equal or greater depth and ambition that responds to what children attending the school know and can do: they must respond constructively to fill the gaps in knowledge and skill the children they teach have.

According to the Department for Education in England, 32 per cent of primary schools and 75 per cent of secondary schools are (at the time of writing) either academies or free schools, with over four million children attending them (about 2.5 million of these children are in secondary schools, while more than 1.6 million are primary school children, and those not accounted for in these figures attend special and alternative provision academies). Academies have grown in number, and it seems likely that this trend will continue in years to come.

Grammar schools

At age 11, when children move from primary school to secondary school (after the end of Year 6), most go to a state-funded school which is non-selective. A small number go to one of the 163 academically selective grammar schools which use entrance testing to assess a child’s achievement and ability. Their presence in the English education system stems from national and local policy decisions which have created heated debates about privilege, segregation and fairness in society. But these debates generally don’t directly affect the majority of parents, due to the relatively small number of grammar schools in the country (which tend to be clustered in certain geographic regions – there is only one in Cumbria, for example, and 15 in Lincolnshire).

The knowledge, skill and dedication of leaders and teachers in grammar schools is not to be diminished but it is important to acknowledge the body of research indicating that this school type per se is not superior to any other, something that can also be said for single-gender schools.

Single-gender schools

If you are considering either an all-boys or all-girls school for your child, you may be surprised to find that – despite anecdotes and intuition – research suggests that sending your child to one appears to make very little – if any – difference to how well they’re likely to do academically. This is not to say that they won’t flourish in a single-gender school, but that, on average, this school type does not confer an academic advantage per se (yet again, the Bananarama Principle returns!).

When we spoke to Durham University’s Professor Stephen Gorard, he offered his thoughts on why, for example, single-gender girls’ schools seem to achieve better results than mixed-gender schools: ‘Single-sex girls’ schools have results in line with those of girls in mixed [co-educational] schools – they just have more girls so the average is higher as girls tend to have better outcomes.’ Looking at the research evidence, we have to conclude that attending a single-gender school appears to make very little – if any – difference to how well a child is likely to do academically.

Private schools

Defining private schools (sometimes known as ‘independent’ or – confusingly – ‘public’ schools) is not as simple as offering a neat, one-line description. As ever in the world of education, things are a little more complicated than that.

For example, the 1400 or so schools registered on the Independent Schools Council website (www.isc.co.uk/schools/) include day schools and boarding schools, co-educational schools and single-sex schools, faith schools and those with no religious affiliation. While private schools often have long histories and are well-known, the number of pupils attending them in England has gone down in recent years: there were 2300 fewer pupils attending in 2019 than in 2017 (Department for Education, 2019).

While entrance testing is common in many private schools, not all select children based on their ability (as demonstrated by performance on an entrance test, for instance), although paying school fees creates a form of selection for all but those who receive the (often generous) bursaries and scholarships available. As with grammar schools and single-gender schools, research evidence indicates that attending a private school does not necessarily confer an academic advantage on average (Ndaji et al, 2016).

Summary

So, to summarise, there is a variety of different school types available in England, although where you live will affect which are actually available to you. School type itself seems to affect the education that children receive less than the quality of the teaching and leadership, so it is advisable to focus your attention on what happens in and around a school, more than what type it is.

Some schools select students: by ability, by gender or financially. Many make the argument that characteristics of their school type – such as its basis for selection – lead to better academic outcomes for students, on average. But is this really the case? Mostly, the answer to this question is ‘no,’ although there do seem to be other ways in which certain types of school confer certain advantages. In most cases, school type makes much less of a difference than the quality of teaching and leadership.

This blogpost is created from excerpts from ‘What Every Parent Should Know About Education: How Knowing The Facts Can Help Your Child Succeed‘ written by Chris Atherton and Stuart Kime.

Available now in Paperback, EPUB, and PDF for just £14.99!

ISBN : 9781913063139
Edition No : 1
Extent : 144 pgs
Publication : May 5, 2021


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