Is a lottery any way to settle the issue of secondary admissions?

9th March 2007 at 00:00
Keith Turvey is a senior university lecturer in education

There has been much coverage of the idea of a lottery to apportion places at over-subscribed secondaries in Brighton and Hove. Lotteries are being lauded as a solution to the problem of middle-class families taking the bulk of places at popular secondary schools through the power of their wallets. Indeed, there seems to be potential here for levelling the educational playing field, which is particularly uneven after years of operating as a marketplace that trades in children's futures.

So is there the opportunity in the new code of practice for a more inclusive and just admissions system? Brighton and Hove council believes so and has relied heavily on the social justice card to convince families that their recipe of equal preference in single and dual catchments with a lottery for over-subscribed catchments offers a "fairer system for the city as a whole". But many disagree, as local parents have amply shown in recent days.

The point that seems to have been missed in national news reports concerns Brighton and Hove's use of catchments and the way these have been drawn. A ward-by-ward analysis, using the Department for the Environment's multiple deprivation index, does not reveal a picture of inclusion and social justice. It shows that a divided city of haves and have nots looks set to become divided further.

Most educationally and socially deprived wards have been hemmed into single catchments for the perceived lesser-performing secondaries, in effect curtailing their chances. But most of the more affluent wards have been crammed into dual catchments for the better performing schools.

Many parents now wonder how such a move can be portrayed as delivering social justice. The retention of catchments combined with lotteries seems simply to replace the"'golden halo" produced by the distance-to-school measure with a new kind of halo. The council is already talking about expanding the over-subscribed popular catchments; presumably that means directing funds away from schools in socially deprived wards towards popular schools in more affluent wards. It is clear to local parents that the new proposals will not deliver a better social mix.

Local controversy about the way the proposals have been pushed through in a series of knife-edge votes and the sacking or replacing of key members of the Children's, Families and Schools committee, who had the final verdict last week, has fuelled the argument that the whole process has really been about the Labour council's marginal wards, which seem to have done well out of the changes.

Could city-wide lotteries deliver a more just system? They are used in some countries to combat social segregation, but at what cost? The environmental impact is a concern as families would be forced to criss-cross cities in their cars, and community cohesion would suffer. It also runs counter to the extended schools agenda. But perhaps the main concern should be the children. In the recent report from the United Nations children's fund (Unicef) about children's well-being, those in England fared very badly.

It is hard to see how deciding school places on area-wide lotteries could do anything to reduce the levels of anxiety and alienation experienced by many of our young people. Integration and reducing the social divide should remain a high priority, and research by the Institute for Public Policy Research indicates that "fair banding" by ability could be the way to achieve greater social inclusion while also reducing the divide between so-called "good" and "bad" schools.

Other councils considering Brighton and Hove's use of the new code of practice would do well to think about the possible impact of all the various elements of this complex issue. Certainly, there will be no "bonus balls" in Brighton and Hove, just a further widening of the divide in this already polarised city.

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