The move towards schools becoming more diverse started with the creation of city technology colleges in 1989 and picked up pace in 1992 when the first specialist schools were introduced. Higher performing secondary schools were financially incentivised to adopt a particular specialism as a way of carving out a distinct identity for their school in the belief that this would broaden parental choice.
The move towards schools becoming more diverse started with the creation of city technology colleges in 1989 and picked up pace in 1992 when the first specialist schools were introduced. Higher performing secondary schools were financially incentivised to adopt a particular specialism as a way of carving out a distinct identity for their school in the belief that this would broaden parental choice. For some specialisms, schools were allowed to select up to ten per cent of their pupils on their basis of their aptitude for the school’s area of specialism. The thinking behind this move was justified by the government of the day in the following terms:
“Uniformity in educational provision presupposes that children are all basically the same and that local communities have essentially the same educational needs. The reality is that children have different needs. The provision of education should be geared more to local circumstances and individual needs: hence our commitment to diversity in education” (DfE 1992)
The move to greater diversity was underpinned by including within the 1988 Education Act the right for parents to express a preference for the school their child should attend. This provision came to have greater force as during the 1990s and the first decade of the new century successive governments funded schools on the basis of the places they filled, made it easier for popular schools to expand and opened up the specialist school programme to all secondary schools. Local authorities were required to hold competitions for new schools to encourage new providers to run schools and academies were enabled to set up sixth forms.
The coalition government has placed even more emphasis on school diversity with its programmes to establish free schools, studio schools and university technical colleges.
It is too early to evaluate the impact of this diversification strategy on the school system. Champions of greater diversity argue that it is bringing innovation and dynamism and making education providers more responsive to parental concerns and wishes. Competition will force poor educational providers to up their game or depart the scene. They also highlight how studio schools and UTCs are drawing universities and employers into working with schools and so strengthening the link between education and the worlds of employment and higher education.
Critics on the other hand argue that diversity has brought with it a number of negative effects. They say that scarce capital spending is going on establishing new schools in areas where there is not an issue with school standards and there is no shortage of places or, even worse, there is a surplus of places. They also point to how an injection of extra places can destabilise collaboration, encourage schools to alter admissions criteria to favour more able students and generally make schools more competitive in their approach to each other. This in turn undermines collaborative efforts to raise standards for all children in an area. Their essential argument is that diversity leads to fragmentation of the school system with the inevitable result that while some schools may thrive and others will struggle. Children’s education, they believe, should not be at the mercy of market forces and schools should be incentivised to contribute to improving all schools in a locality. And critics of the 14- 19 initiatives say that 14 is too young for young people to specialise in educational routes linked to specific employment sectors.
Phase III: Structures, admissions and accountablity
How far has diversity brought welcome innovation and competition to the system?
Should there be more controls on the quality and operation of free schools?
Are 14-19 studio schools a useful addition to the school system or the thin end of thick wedge leading to an unhealthy division between academic and vocational education?
To what extent has innovation and diversity come at the expense of overlooking the needs of parents who do not know how the admissions systems work or who cannot afford to move house or change catchment area?
Should the education quasi-market be better regulated, with a view to minimising some of the negative effects of the unregulated market? If so, how?