ERG SES D 14, Communities and Education
The global trend toward parental school choice in recent decades has inspired growth in the body of research focusing on school place allocation. The academic debate relating to school place allocation revolves between the concepts of freedom of choice and equality of opportunity: egalitarian thinkers tend to oppose, while liberal thinkers tend to promote parental school choice. Studies suggest that parental school choice is heavily influenced by social background (Gewirtz et al. 1995) and, consequently, may lead to socially more segregated schools (Söderström & Uusitalo 2010). At the same time, catchment areas in socially segregated neighbourhoods may also lead to socially segregated schools.
While most countries are following either a catchment area or school choice principle, in most cases both geographic location and parental choice is influencing the school place allocation process. As an example, primary school place allocation in Germany has been determined by catchment areas (van Ackeren 2006). Nonetheless, since 1949, parents in Berlin have the possibility to choose another school. In 2012, a third of all new Berlin primary school pupils did not attend their catchment area school (Vieth-Entus 2012), suggesting that the possibility of parental school choice undercuts the allocation through catchment area. Consequently, this present study aims to investigate the concurrency and also the practical interplay of both catchment areas and primary school choice in the case of Berlin.
Additionally, while existing research on school choice has mainly focused on the perspective of parents or the overall implications of school choice for efficiency or social justice (e.g. Gorard et al. 2003; Vincent et al. 2010), this study takes a different approach by examining the actual “doing” of school place allocation. Hereby, it particularly focuses on the local interpretation of school choice legislations, as reported by political actors. In doing so, it provides insights into a policy process which has often remained a black box in school choice research.
As Wiborg & Larsen (2017) show for Denmark, local politicians frequently bypass the school choice imperative by the national government and instead actively form socially integrated catchment areas, changing their boundaries and, if necessary, limiting parental school choice. Similarly, in Berlin, the twelve local school department heads are responsible for primary school place allocation defining the shape of their schools' catchment areas. This gives them, in theory, a certain influence on shaping the allocation process. Comparing three different districts of Berlin, this study comparatively investigates to what extent this political influence is used.
Finally, despite its single case focus, the study also has important implications for international and comparative educational research. The study investigates the tension in school place allocation between freedom of choice and equality of opportunity, present in most education systems around the world. How the political actors navigate between these concepts and how they use different allocation strategies to pursue their objectives can inform the international debate.
In a first step, the organisation of primary school place allocation in Berlin and, particularly, in the three catchment areas under study, was examined. In a second step, the political objectives, scope, and strategies of local school department heads were more deeply explored. Herefore, semi-structured expert interviews were conducted with three school department heads, two of which were interviewed alone and the third alongside a member of her staff. Two interviewees were members of the Social Democratic Party and one member of the Christian Democratic Union. The method of the expert interview was expanded to allow for questions focusing on the political opinion of the interviewed, seeing them not only as experts but also as actors subjectively affecting the school allocation process. The interviews were transcribed and analysed based on the method of qualitative content analysis (Mayring 2010) carving out the different objectives and strategies used to achieve these objectives.
The results show that, in theory, all school districts in Berlin share the same principle of primary school place allocation. Catchment areas determine which school a child is entitled to attend. However, parents can choose a school of their liking outside of their catchment area, if the capacity for the school is not reached with children from within the area. In cases in which there are more applicants than free places, free places are allocated in a three-step-lottery. However, the results of this study demonstrate a surprising variation between districts in terms of the actual allocation practice and, thus, illustrate a significant influence of school department heads. As an example, while one department head defines precise catchment areas, thus restricting school choice, another department head is expanding school capacities aiming for more school choice. In one district, the local parliament decided to give parents choice between two or three schools within their catchment area. Another striking difference between the interviewed politicians is how catchment areas are built. While one department head defines socially more integrated catchment areas to ensure socially mixed schools, another interviewee rejects such means firmly. Consensus exists on attempting to steer parental choices towards socially disadvantaged schools, to enhance social mixing within schools, although interviewees were pessimistic as to whether this would be successful. Additionally, in two districts, the lack of school places overshadows the potential conflict between freedom of choice and equality of opportunity. Both politicians feel that their political scope is limited. This is in contrast with the quite clear different possibilities to act politically as outlined above. It becomes apparent that political differences are not always clear-cut as the department heads try to integrate different and sometimes opposing political aims and strategies. Ultimately, this leads to a concurrency of different logics of control.
Gewirtz, S., Ball, S. J. & Bowe, R. (1995). Markets, choice and equity in education. Buckingham: Open University Press. Gorard, S., Fitz, J. & Taylor, C. (2003). Schools, markets and choice policies. London: Routledge Falmer. Mayring, P. (2010). Qualitative Inhaltsanalyse. In: Mey, G. & Mruck, K. (Hrsg.), Handbuch Qualitative Forschung in der Psychologie (pp. 601–613). Wiesbaden: VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften / Springer Fachmedien Wiesbaden, Wiesbaden. DOI: 10.1007/978-3-531-92052-8_42 Söderström, M. & Uusitalo, R. (2010). School Choice and Segregation. Evidence from an Admission Reform. Scandinavian Journal of Economics 112 (1), pp. 55–76. DOI:10.1111/j.1467-9442.2009.01594.x van Ackeren, I. (2006). Freie Wahlen der Grundschule? Zur Aufhebung fester Schulbezirke und deren Folgen. Die Deutsche Schule 98 (3), pp. 301–310. Vieth-Entus, S. (2012, 17. Dezember). Jedes dritte Kind wird nicht mehr im Kiez eingeschult. Berliner Tagesspiegel. Retrieved from http://www.tagesspiegel.de/berlin/schule/10-000-wechselantraege-gestellt-jedes-dritte-kind-wird-nicht-mehr-im-kiez-eingeschult/7528898.html. Vincent, C., Braun, A. & Ball, S. (2010). Local links, local knowledge: choosing care settings and schools. British Educational Research Journal 36 (2), pp. 279–298. DOI:10.1080/01411920902919240 Wiborg, S. & Larsen, K. R. (2017). Why School Choice Reforms in Denmark Fail: the blocking power of the teacher union. European Journal of Education 52 (1), pp. 92–103. DOI:10.1111/ejed.12203
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