Could the introduction of a lottery be the answer to a fairer admissions system for everyone? Jon Slater reports
Given that this Government prides itself on putting parents' interests ahead of those of teachers', ministers have been strangely silent on the issue of school admissions.
Every year hundreds of thousands of parents engage in an unseemly scramble to get their children into their first-choice secondary school.
House prices inside popular schools' catchment areas have rocketed by up to pound;20,000 amid evidence of growing dissatisfaction with the present system.
The number of parents who appeal each year against a school's decision has increased every year since Labour came to power and at 69,210 is now 50 per cent higher than in 19978. Ninety-two per cent of parents get their first choice of school (70 per cent in London), but many more do not even apply to the most popular local school because they realise their children will not get in.
It is not just parents who have concerns over the present system.
Academics, teaching unions and many on the left have long argued that the system needs reform because it fails to provide schools with socially mixed intakes.
Unpublished Department for Education and Skills research found that lower-income pupils are over-represented in schools that add the least value to pupils' performance. It also shows that lower and higher-income pupils alike all make greater progress in schools with a low percentage of pupils on free school meals.
Yet ministers remain reluctant to countenance major reform, warning that changes proposed would reduce parental choice and prove even more unpopular than the current system.
Planning admissions to ensure a social mix would enrage the parents of middle England who would find their children deliberately shut out of their preferred school in favour of those from the council estate down the road.
The alternative of reserving local schools for local children would in many areas merely increase the house price premium and therefore social segregation, the Government argues.
As David Bell, chief inspector, told a Social Market Foundation seminar:
"If you want a Stalinist, centralist admissions system, count me out." But he went on to admit: "The admissions system we have at the moment will only work if all schools take their fair share of pupils from different backgrounds."
Within the next few weeks, MPs on the education select committee will deliver a damning report showing that, in many areas, the opposite is happening. It is expected to say that in cities and London, the power to choose lies not with the majority of parents but with oversubscribed schools and parents who have the money and know-how to play the system.
Many of the 1,060 foundation and voluntary-aided (faith) secondaries who are their own admissions authorities use their freedom to cherry-pick middle-class pupils. Some schools feel free to ignore government guidance and many parents are willing to bend or even break the rules to get what they want, MPs were told.
This leaves their neighbours struggling to cope with a high concentration of children from deprived backgrounds and reputations as the local sink school.
Recent research by ITV's Tonight with Trevor McDonald programme found one in five parents would exaggerate or lie about religious beliefs to win a faith school place and that 60 per cent would consider moving into a good school's catchment area.
During their inquiry, MPs heard of parents who, having moved to secure their first child a place at the local school, moved out again a few months later, secure in the knowledge that their second child would be guaranteed a place as a sibling of a pupil.
The report paints a picture of an admissions system which has failed to provide either fairness or choice for all parents.
Ministers have shown in the past that even strong criticism from MPs is unlikely to alter their determination to protect parental choice, even if that means failing to tackle social injustice.
But what if ministers could have their cake and eat it? What if they could protect and even extend choice for parents while giving children from deprived backgrounds a better chance of getting into popular secondary schools?
Later this summer, the Social Market Foundation think-tank will publish a report which takes ministers' concerns at face value and attempts to break the current impasse with one simple idea.
Instead of schools or local authorities deciding which children get rejected from oversubscribed schools, places should be allocated by the luck of the draw.
Parents would be free to apply to any school in the country and could still state a number of preferences. If applications exceeded the places available, the intake would be decided by a lottery.
If a child was rejected by a first-choice school, they would enter the ballot for any places left at their second choice, and so on.
At a stroke, the SMF will argue, this would increase both social justice and fairness.
The introduction of an admissions lottery would leave oversubscribed schools unable to control their own intake and therefore unable to opt for middle-class parents. And parents with money would no longer be able to manipulate the system but would have to take their chances just like anyone else. Ricky from the council estate down the road would have had exactly the same chance of winning a place at the London Oratory school as Euan Blair. Thus a lottery would provide schools with a better social mix than at present and thus raise standards, the SMF will argue.
It could also push up standards in another way, by forcing schools to improve their teaching and learning to attract pupils rather than relying on an advantaged intake to maintain a high league table position.
Philip Collins, director of the SMF, will present the idea at a 10 Downing Street policy seminar. "People in government realise that it has a better chance of delivering the sort of social mix that they want than catchment areas," he said.
But Mr Collins admits that making a lottery system work would raise some difficult questions. Although parents would be free to apply for any school in the country, for most, choice would be limited by travelling times and the transport provided by the Government. And special treatment would have to be given to pupils with special educational needs and siblings of pupils already attending a school.
Ministers would also have to be willing to take on the churches. Under a lottery system, parents could continue to opt for religious schools. But since voluntary-aided schools would no longer control their own admissions, those schools would no longer be able to choose parents on the basis of their faith.
But perhaps the biggest obstacles are the house price bubbles caused in catchment areas. If a lottery were introduced overnight, demand for and therefore the value of houses close to popular schools could drop sharply, leaving the Government trying to placate angry, out-of-pocket, middle-class voters. This drop could be spread over time if to begin with pupils living close to the school were given additional chances in the lottery, although rigging the system in this way would reduce the benefits of reform.
Mr Collins believes these concerns will lead the Government to reject reform.
Are thousands of disadvantaged children sent to sink schools every year because the Government fears the wrath of home-owners and the churches? Perhaps that is why, despite parental concern, ministers have been so anxious to avoid a debate on admissions.
Professor Stephen Gorard, of Cardiff university, said a lottery was superficially attractive but that more evidence was needed that it would work. "It should produce a better social mix, but you would need safeguards for special needs pupils and it would need to be trialled in a number of different areas, not just in London," he said.
But Professor Anne West, of the London School of Economics, said a national lottery would be too bureaucratic and would cause problems if local children were excluded from their school.
She said she would prefer a system, used by some LEAs, which ensures schools take a certain proportion of pupils from different social backgrounds.
CURRENT ADMISSION RULES
* Where more parents have expressed a preference for a particular school in a particular year than it has places, the admission authority must apply the criteria in its published admission policy in deciding which parents'
preferences it must meet. Admission authorities include LEAs, foundation schools and voluntary-aided schools.
* Acceptable criteria include sibling links, distance from school, ease of journey by public transport, transfer from named feeder primaries, catchment areas and medical or social grounds.
* Voluntary-aided schools are allowed to select pupils according to faith but can no longer interview parents or pupils.
* Some authorities have introduced a banding system whereby the school accepts an equal number of pupils from all ability bands.
* Grammar schools select pupils by ability using 11-plus tests
* Specialist schools can select up to 10 per cent of pupils by aptitude.