Lottery furore - but more get a preference
Politicians and the press lined up this week to criticise Brighton and Hove council for allocating school places at random, suggesting that its lottery system had been a failure and was disastrous for parents.
But two important points were often overlooked. First, the number of parents who got children into one of their three preferred schools actually increased, rising to 96.5 per cent from 93.3 per cent last year. Second, the vast majority of the places in the city were not decided by lotteries.
The principal factor in most cases was the catchment area in which children lived (see panel below).
Of the nine secondary schools in Brighton, only two needed to resort to using lotteries to decide places because they were oversubscribed: Dorothy Stringer and Blatchington Mill. These popular schools received 950 first-choice applications for 608 places, but only 728 pupils who lived in their catchment areas were eligible for the lottery.
This means that just 120 pupils out of the 2,354 being allocated places in Brighton missed out on their first choice as a result of lotteries, rather than where they lived.
Vanessa Brown, the council's lead member for children's services, said she was delighted with how it had gone. "The numbers of children not allocated to any of their priority schools have almost halved from 150 last year to 83 this year," she said.
Brighton was not the first authority to introduce lotteries as a tie-breaker - Hertfordshire and Milton Keynes did so last year and Northamptonshire in some schools this year. But Brighton overshadowed admissions in a week when 600,000 children across England were allocated places.
The proportion of parents in Brighton securing their first choice school has fallen, down from 83.7 per cent to 78.2. But the numbers who were successful still compares favourably with many local authorities across the country.
In Wandsworth, south-west London, just 50.8 per cent of parents won their first choice, while four miles away in Southwark, the figure was 52.5. The most content parents were in East Yorkshire, where the proportion hit 96.5 per cent, while in Redcar and Cleveland it was 98.4 per cent.
St Paul's Catholic School in Milton Keynes, introduced a lottery system last year for pupils from other Christian faiths. Michael Manley, the head, said: "We got to the situation where the pupils who can now enter the tie-break had to live within a mile of the school to get in. Having a wider area is fairer and gives many more children an opportunity of gaining a place."
But Michael Griffiths, head of Northampton School for Boys, told the Daily Telegraph that the lottery system was "reprehensible", turning admissions into a "Saturday night game show".
Independent schools in parts of the country using lotteries said they were expecting increased interest from parents who had been left disappointed. Richard Cairns, headmaster of fee-charging Brighton College, said it would start accepting pupils from 11 following a 43 per cent rise in interest for Year 7 places at its prep school.
Jim Knight, the schools minister, urged parents to appeal against any admissions decision if they felt they had a strong case.
But John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said parents should appeal only if they believed the selection process had not been properly followed. This plea may fall on deaf ears when it comes to some well-off parents who are desperate to secure a place at the school of choice for their children.
Local authorities are targeting parents who "cheat" by renting properties in catchment areas where they do not live. Hertfordshire said it was carrying out spot checks on parents' addresses.
HOW THE LOTTERY SYSTEM WORKS
Random allocations for oversubscribed schools were introduced in Brighton this year following changes to the admissions code. Instead of giving preference to pupils who live closest to a school, six distinct catchment areas were drawn up.
Priority is given to siblings of existing pupils at schools, looked-after children and pupils with statements of special educational needs. The lottery is then used to decide who else from the catchment will get in to over-subscribed schools.
Parents were free to apply for places outside their catchment area, but if the school was already oversubscribed, they were not entered into the lottery.
This year only two catchment areas used a computer to allocate places randomly at one of their oversubscribed schools.
The tie-break was also used to allocate places to Portslade Community College from outside its catchment area.