Surprising new research on school choice and academic achievement

Published on Wednesday, 25 September 2019
Last updated on Tuesday, 31 December 2019

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Choosing the right school for your child is a big decision. You will be looking for somewhere they can learn, grow, and achieve their potential, while taking things like catchment zones, school fees, facilities, and individual interests into account.

Although it's important to find a school that you're comfortable with, a study out of England suggests that choice of school may not have as much influence on your child's academic achievements as you may think. In fact, your choice of early childhood education and care could be more important than any decision you make around secondary schooling.

Here, we look at research undertaken by University College London's (UCL) Institute of Education and see how much, or how little, school choice affects a child's ultimate academic achievement.

What findings emerged from the UCL study?

This study involved researchers looking at the data of 3,000 secondary schools in England. To gauge many different students' achievements, they analysed the years between 2003 and 2016 and came to the conclusion that:

  1. A 'good' school doesn't add a great amount of extra value
    According to this study, schools contribute in a 'relatively small' way (less than 10 per cent) to the differences between children's results.

    Researchers found that, 'Once you control for the characteristics of pupils within each school', sending a child to a 'good' school (i.e. one that achieved good results in national exams) only added a small amount of extra value, compared to if they'd attended a 'bad' school.
  2. Early education may have a greater effect than secondary education
    Researchers also found that while it is possible to influence children's academic achievements through specific school initiatives, there is 'more scope' to do this outside of school. For example, by investing in parental engagement and good quality early years education.

    UCL principal research associate, David Wilkinson says that, 'While some school-led initiatives may have a part to play in attainment levels, it is likely that parental investments in children's education and early years interventions could have significantly more influence.'
  3. Investment in schools hasn't led to huge changes in results
    Despite major efforts to improve state schools over the last decade in the UK, researchers also found that the variations between pupil attainment at different schools has not changed much at all.

    Also, although well-funded schools had better student to teacher ratios, this had a very small effect on the variations in children's achievements.

UCL's Professor Alex Bryson says that, 'Schools do still matter, but they don't matter as much as people think,' which might come as a relief if you're struggling to choose the 'right' one for your child.

How do genes affect a child's academic achievement?

Another interesting study, this time out of King's College London, suggests a pupil's genetics play a larger role in their academic success than their school environment.

For this study, researchers looked at the genetic differences between students who went to selective and non-selective schools, then analysed their school results at the age of 15 or 16.

They found that pupils at selective grammar schools or private schools were more likely to do well in exams, but that this was due more to their genes than their educational environment. In other words, the type of school a child attended had little impact on their academic achievement by the age of 16.

What should we take away from all this?

Back in the Southern Hemisphere, it's important to choose a school that suits your child and family circumstances, but if you have an under five, then think first about their early education. A high-quality early learning environment will set your child up for future success, so focus on choosing an excellent early childhood education and care provider early on.

To help you find a quality early childhood service, offers lots of free information and an effective Child Care Search engine. In addition, read our article on high-quality care as a starting point before you explore local options and make your final decision.


The Telegraph

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