Over the past decade and a half, the notion of ‘choice’ has played an important rhetorical role in education policy. The 1988 Education Reform Act introduced a broad raft of measures aimed at increasing parental choice within compulsory schooling, while similar changes were brought about in the post-compulsory sector under the auspices of the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act. Since then, although changes in government have resulted in some modifications to the way in which parental/pupil preferences are expressed and taken account of, ‘choice’ has remained a central plank of education policy under both Conservative and Labour administrations. However, despite this continuing commitment to increasing consumer choice within education, there is now a large body of research that has demonstrated that many of these policies have served to exacerbate social inequalities. For example, studies have shown that the ‘power to choose’ is not distributed equally across all social groups (Gewirtz et al., 1995), while in some areas, where there is high parental demand, it is the schools and colleges that often end up doing the ‘choosing’ (Whitty et al., 1998) — in effect, what Tomlinson (2001) calls a ‘crude mechanism for social selection’ (p. 49).
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