England & Wales

School places lottery – Newsnight


UPDATE: the clip is here, around 35 minutes in.

Over to Television Centre today to pre-record a clip for Newsnight to be aired tonight, Monday.   It was clear once the interview got going that they hoped I would say that the lottery or ‘random allocation’ for school places is a good system.   There is little place for naunce and qualification in an interview like this, where they want to cut it into a one liner into a recorded package.   So I said it, they pushed and pushed and then the words came tumbling out, the words I had been fighting back… “a school lottery is sometimes the right approach”.    

Last time the LGiU said this we were widely castigated in the media.  Columnists would say “how can it be fair for the future of your child to be decided by a ballot, surely there are better ways”.  Well yes and no.  The job of a thinktank is not to say the easy thing, the obvious thing, the politically expedient thing – we’ll leave that to others.

Ed Balls has launched a review to detemine how widespread the use of lotteries is.   Perhaps he was unaware that the LSE and RISE are about to publish research showing that random allocation is used to allocate places in only 6% of schools.  In those schools random allocation is used for only some places.  It is most often used after other criteria, such as how close the child lives to the school, have been considered and these factors are equal amongst a group of applicants who exceed the places available.    

In a small number of schools the more controversial practice of using a lottery as a preferred or deliberate method of allocating places is used.  Is this wrong?   It is most likely to be used in an urban area where there is a clear disparity in performance between schools and where there is a perceived need to ensure a more balanced intake in the schools.  An example would be a high performing school in an affluent area and a poorly performing school in a relatively poorer area.  If proximity, i.e. how close the child lives to the school, were the deciding factor for all places, this would have the effect of entrenching the relative disparity in performance.  If a lottery were used, and the intake were mixed, evidence shows that this should improve performance in both schools.   From a local authority point of view this would be the most desirable approach.  But the parent of a child who doesn’t get into their preferred school will complain.    The parents’ perspective (I am waiting to hear about my son’s school place) is totally understandable and it is this anger and frustration that the national media and some national politicans are playing up to.    

Local authorities are caught between a set of rules – your rules Mr Balls – that specifically include a drive towards equity and highlight random allocation as a way to achieve this, and the righteous indignation of parents.     Meanwhile the real problem remains.   350,000 young people leave school at 16 without five good GCSEs.    Until every school is a good school and parents can be sure that their child will get the best start in life whichever school they go to, we will have this annual round of parental anguish and political posturing.    This is not a distant aspiration.  In some communities initiatives such as building new schools, significantly improving facilities, and establishing specialisms, have already changed the dynamic and eased the problems of school admissions.    We need to make sure this happens in every area, as one part of the work, that the LGiU is playing a leading role in, to narrow the educational achievement gap.    

I hope at least some of these issues come out in a useful way in the Newsnight coverage later.