Report finds clear winners and losers but the  catchment area remains key


Research by the Centre for Market and Public Organisation at Bristol University,  presented to the British Educational Research Association  a couple of weeks ago, found that the pioneering  lottery system used for admissions to schools in  Brighton and Hove does not give equal chances to all.

In February 2007, Brighton and Hove announced plans for a complete reform of their secondary school admissions system. The newly proposed system was unique in England because it incorporated widespread use of a lottery, or random allocation, as a tie breaker for oversubscribed places instead of using the distance from home to school. This lottery was introduced alongside the drawing of new catchment areas (or priority zones), and also a national reform from a First Preference First (or priority) matching mechanism to an equal preferences system. The abandonment of proximity as a tie breaker and the use of lotteries within distinct catchment areas was a major school admissions reform, the first of its kind in England.  This report examines the post-reform changes in school composition, locating the major winners and losers in terms of the quality of school attended. The report matches  similar cities and conducts a difference-in-difference analysis of the policy change. The report found  ‘ no significant change in student sorting: if anything, the point estimates suggest a rise in socio-economic segregation.’  Brighton and Hove is divided into catchment areas and if a school is over-subscribed with applications from that area, a lottery is used as a tie-breaker to decide who should get a place. In the past, places went to pupils who lived closest to the schools, leading critics to say pupils were being “selected by mortgage” pupils because catchment areas are still the main determinants of access to particular schools. However the research found that the new catchment areas are drawn in such a way that families in the poorest neighbourhoods still  in reality have little chance of getting into the most popular schools. The most popular schools are in the centre of the city, while the most deprived areas are to the east and far west.

“The main lesson of our analysis is that the introduction of a lottery on its own is not enough to equalise access to the high-performing popular schools,” said Rebecca Allen of the Institute of Education, London, and Simon Burgess and Leigh McKenna from Bristol University in their report. “The drawing of the catchment area boundaries is central to the outcome of the reform.”

The researchers say if anything, socio-economic segregation has increased slightly, although some students from wealthier neighbourhoods were now attending less academically successful secondaries than they might have expected to previously.  “These are the primary group losing out from the reform, balanced by a more diffuse group of winners who gained access to the higher performing schools,” the report says.  Admission processes are controversial. There are too few good schools around to satisfy demand. And the most disadvantaged pupils tend to be in the worst schools.  Some, from all parties, champion a lottery system for admissions as they  believe it to be the fairest way of allocating places  and the think tank, the Social Market Foundation, has come out strongly  in favour of such a system.  It has to date  been widely assumed that a lottery system will help the most disadvantaged students as wealthier parents simply buy properties close to good state schools, paying a premium along the way on their house price  but ensuring that their child secures a place in the coveted school. Thus it  had largely been assumed that the lottery would reduce the dependence of school access on the ability of parents to purchase a house in the correct neighbourhood, thus lowering social segregation,  but this report shows  that the re-drawing of catchment areas in  Brighton has considerably complicated the patterns of winners and losers.  And there are clearly winners and losers from these reforms: some students are attending less academically successful secondary schools than they might have expected to; for others the reverse is true. Crucially, though,  the location of these winners and losers largely derive from the design of the catchment areas rather than the impact of the lottery per se where it applies.

So, it is safe to conclude that much careful thought has to go into  defining the catchment area , before a lottery system is introduced in any area.

The report  concludes ‘It will be several more years before the long‐run impact of the school admission reforms in Brighton and Hove become apparent because we do expect families to relocate and house prices to adjust in response to the re‐drawing of the catchment boundaries. Nevertheless, it seems unlikely that the reforms are likely to substantially lower social segregation across schools even in the long‐run in this city where differences in the quality of housing stock across areas are deeply entrenched and the boundaries of the new catchment areas mean that families living in the most deprived neighbourhoods have little chance of accessing the most popular schools in the centre of the city.’

The early impact of Brighton and Hove’s school admission reforms Rebecca Allen, Simon Burgess and Leigh McKenna; August 2010 Working Paper No. 10/244


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