A bit of a lottery?


The Office of the Schools Adjudicator believes that some parents cheat to get their children into good schools and intends to look closer at the whole issue of  misleading applications. Of course, with so much at stake and such a variability in the quality of schools in local areas  and with  good schools massively oversubscribed some parents cheat the admissions process which  disadvantages others. Forget about parental choice, good schools choose their pupils. Some parents will go to some lengths to cheat the system, including pretending  to be religious ,in order to get their child into a good  faith school (which tend to perform better  on average than non-faith schools). A recent government commissioned report found that some parents flout the rules by pretending to live in the catchment area of their preferred school. This was not exactly a surprise to local authorities who have known about the practice for some time.  Indeed, some local authorities have been looking for new powers to prosecute parents who abuse the system and systematically mislead the authorities. Ed Balls has commented that “It’s really important that parents who are properly playing by the rules aren’t disadvantaged by some parents who break the rules or provide false information. That’s not fair.” But this is the reality of the current system and is unlikely to change whatever the legal sanctions available to local authorities.  Nor will tightening up the admissions rules be a panacea (they have recently been tightened up anyway). No admissions system will be fair in the eyes of all parents, of course,  but the system of local catchment areas inherently disadvantages poorer children.  Politicians are now looking more  seriously at the issue of admissions ballots, or so called lotteries

But why not catchment areas? The Education Reform Act of 1988 attempted to weaken the middleclass’ stranglehold on the best state schools, aiming to establish choice as the first principle in school admissions. But the reality on the ground, in the wake of these measures, was very different. The primacy of catchment areas and other proximity rules ensured that choice is meaningless for whole swathes of poor parents who want good schools but don’t live in – and can’t afford to move to – the right areas. The emphasis on where you live firstly, provides an incentive for parents to ‘game’ the system,  in other words the   myriad,  subtly different admissions authorities and admissions rules mean that the better-informed and more well-connected parents can exploit  the system to their advantage – and at others’ expense. Don’t assume that all state schools, apart from grammar schools, are non-selective. Many have some form of selection both overt and covert.  And, secondly it reinforces social divisions as children from deprived areas are denied access to the schools favoured by their wealthier counterparts. We know too that there is a premium on house prices   in areas close to good state schools which means that areas around good schools over time become gentrified and more socially exclusive.  Parents may not be paying school fees but they are essentially paying to gain an education advantage for their child, through the premium on their  house prices. A report published by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors in 2003, found a national average house price premium of 12% around popular schools. Against such a backdrop, the use of lotteries to allocate school places looks to be fairer, and more likely to foster social mobility, inclusion and equity, giving poorer pupils an equal chance of securing a place in a high performing school regardless of where their family can afford to live. The current system can help create socially divisive segregation of children along class or ethnic lines. And school selection can, counter-intuitively, lower average standards, by encouraging schools to improve outcomes through pupil selection rather than high quality teaching, and by compromising any positive consequences of peer effects. There is evidence that state schools in leafy suburbs quite often coast, failing to add much value during their pupils education.

A new system could allow parents to be entitled to apply for a place in any school they choose. Popular oversubscribed schools would then allocate places through a lottery – entirely eradicating the inbuilt advantage to the wealthy that the current catchment areas provide. This would offer the poorest children the same prospects of entering the best schools as the richest, eradicating the phenomenon of ‘house price premiums’ associated with schools in good catchments areas. By introducing real choice into the system, as a Social Market Foundation Report concluded in 2004 “ we would bring competitive pressures into the school system that would act to lever up standards across the board. Schools could no longer rely on an intake of well-behaved middle class children to produce good results, but would instead have to focus on teaching standards”

A recent review of the use of school lotteries told the Education Secretary Ed Balls that their impact  has been slight. Ed Balls said in recent evidence to the Select Committee that almost all the time, lotteries were essentially used as a tie-breaker when you had two children from equal distance away who were the last two children. Other than in the Brighton experience, which was particular to Brighton’s circumstances, there is not a widespread use of lotteries, he said.

Balls in fact preferred to see children moving together from Primary to Secondary education. He said “It’s good that children move with their peers and friends from primary to secondary school. Having a complete lottery on who moves where is destabilising to children and bad for their welfare. People being able to go to their local school is a good thing.”

Balls sees this as a local issue to be decided locally. One option he highlighted was a Banded admissions system which allows you to have the combination of proximity and a more comprehensive intake, though this does mean that within the primary school class, some children who live further away have less chance of getting into the school, but, at the same time, the intake will be more ‘ comprehensive’.

Balls said that “If a school is within a wider local authority that has more high-income housing around it, the chances are that the lowest ability band will take from a wider catchment than the highest ability band and vice versa for other schools. For example, Mossbourne has always had a much wider catchment for its highest 20 or 25% ability band than for the lowest because that is how it brings them in.”

Banding was used by the now defunct Inner London Education Authority in the 1980s, and survives in a handful of London boroughs.

One state school currently using a banded admissions system is Dunraven, in Streatham, south London. It switched its admissions system to banding because it wanted to have a “properly comprehensive intake”.  After an admissions test, it places children in one of five ability bands. The school takes 20% of its annual intake from these bands. Thereafter the three usual admissions criteria apply- siblings, social and medical need and distance between home and school. Though under banding it is unlikely a child would gain a place at a school ahead of one who lived closer, it could happen as a result of other criteria used in conjunction with banding.

One objection to school admissions lotteries is that they might weaken the schools bond with the local community at a time when the Government is trying to make schools into stronger community hubs with a social and welfare support role.  It is likely that most parents would seek schools that are close to where they live for obvious reasons just as people choose their local hospital for medical support. Parents can be expected to regulate their choices by distance, with a limit to transport subsidies ensuring that the state is not forced to pay for unlimited parental choice.

An absolute right to choice cannot be guaranteed. In some rural areas, for instance, it may be entirely impractical for children to attend anything other than their local school, in which case there would have to be guarantees on the basis of proximity which will not be present in any national structure that might apply. It would also seem fair that siblings of current pupils should be advantaged in the admissions procedure, as is currently common practice (used in 96% of secondary schools, not including grammar schools) such that their choices are met prior to those of other children. This does not fundamentally undermine the fairness of the system, as the eldest child still has to be admitted on the usual basis.

However, the Office of the School Adjudicator’s report found that few Local Authorities will adopt a ballot based system mainly it seems because of its high negative media profile and the potential political fallout. Rich, articulate, well-educated, media-savvy parents are terrified of change to a system that benefits them to the detriment of the disadvantaged and will resist change. But if politicians are serious about fairness, equity and social mobility then surely they should provide the leadership to take on vested interests. Isn’t that their job?


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