Social mobility: 'We need a school admissions lottery'

Minor tweaks to school admissions won't be enough to improve social mobility, say Lee Elliot Major and Stephen Machin

We need to make school admissions a lottery to boost social mobility, say Lee Elliot Major and Stephen Machin

Much of the talk on election night will be about who’s in and who’s out. Sadly, this question will not relate to the contentious issue of which pupils get into the country’s most popular state schools and universities. 

Promises to make admissions fairer when places are oversubscribed are conspicuous by their absence in the 2019 election manifestos.

Talking social mobility or social justice is easy, but delivering policies that will level the uneven playing field is harder. 

If we want to aspire to a world where social mobility has more chance to flourish, then we need to tackle the unfairness of the admissions systems. 

School admissions: gaming the system

Admissions are tilted in countless ways to the already advantaged. Sharp-elbowed parents will always find ways to game admissions rules. They buy a property close to the best schools, or devote time to their local church just when it matters, or invest in private tutoring for their children. 

Significant numbers of parents admit to cheating to get their children into the most desirable schools – renting houses near to them, for example. 

The result of this one-sided game is that many of the top-performing state schools admit far fewer disadvantaged pupils than they should do. 

The same holds true at university level. School gaming already confers an advantage and, when some of the top universities still interview and do not treat qualification-tied students fairly, this reinforces already existent inequalities. 

Sweeping away middle-class advantage

Lotteries for admission offers a fair way of sweeping away middle-class advantages. Undeniably, the most equitable way to allocate places to equally deserving candidates at oversubscribed schools and universities is to pick them randomly.

In our 2018 book, Social Mobility and Its Enemies, we showed how education has failed to be the great social leveller that enables children from poorer backgrounds to overcome the circumstances into which they are born. 

For politicians, it is an uncomfortable message: minor tweaks of existing policies will not be enough to tackle Britain’s social-mobility problem. 

In our forthcoming 2020 book, What do we Know About Social Mobility and What Should we do About it?, we argue that four underlying principles need to be embraced to challenge the status quo: collectivism, community, decency and fairness. 

Improving social mobility

The debate over admissions speaks to all these principles. Rather than thinking about the benefits for individual pupils, we need to consider what is best for the whole class. Local children living in poorer communities are equally deserving of school places, and all children deserve a decent education.

However, more than anything else, arguments over admissions are about what is fair for our children’s futures. 

When asked about schools deploying random allocation to help decide to which pupils they admitted, David Cameron once responded that no child's education should be determined by “the roll of a dice”.

The irony is that many children’s life prospects are damaged precisely because of the lottery of where they happen to be born and grow up. 

Political leaders need to back reforms to admissions, so the odds are not stacked firmly against children from poorer backgrounds.

Lee Elliot Major was formerly chief executive of the Sutton Trust, and is now the country's first professor of social mobility, at the London School of Economics. Stephen Machin is a professor of economics at LSE

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