Applied Spatial Analysis and Policy

, Volume 1, Issue 1, pp 59–84 | Cite as

Primary Schools, Markets and Choice: Studying Polarization and the Core Catchment Areas of Schools

  • Richard HarrisEmail author
  • Ron Johnston


In this paper we distinguish polarization from other conceptions of segregation by conceiving the former as a local phenomenon. To this end we argue that evidence for any school-level separation of ethnic groups must be sought and contextualised within the local markets within which schools operate. By determining the ‘core catchment’ areas of primary schools from geographical micro-data reporting where pupils reside and which schools they attend so we estimate where and by how much schools compete with each other across spaces of admission, consider whether the ethnic compositions of those spaces are representative of the actual intakes of schools, and identify evidence of post-residential sorting and ethnic polarization, where locally competing schools draw markedly different student intakes. The focus of the study is in Birmingham, England but the results are compared with those for London.


Catchments Choice Ethnicity PLASC Polarization Schools Segregation 



We are grateful to two anonymous referees who provided helpful feedback on a draft of this paper. One, in particular, noted the parallels of this paper with the task and literature of defining local labour markets. This is a helpful observation which, though we have not pursued it here, may also be useful to readers.

The PLASC data are released for research by kind agreement of the Department for Education and Skills. There is a PLASC User group for people interested in using or acquiring the data. Please see

The London study was prepared for the Social selection, social sorting and education conference (London, October, 2007). Copies of the presentations are available from the National Foundation for Educational Research ( and from

The research was funded by the Centre for Market and Public Organisation at the University of Bristol which is supported by the ESRC. Any errors or omissions are our own.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Geographical SciencesUniversity of BristolBristolUK

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