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Is trusting to luck really so bad?

Far from being a 'frightening social engineering' experiment, admission by lottery to popular schools can be fairer, experts say. William Stewart reports.

"It could be you." That is the chilling message the right-wing press have been sending readers when it comes to lotteries for school places. Chilling because the lottery story reported in these newspapers is not about winners.

For them, admissions lotteries are a scary tale of affluent, middle-class parents losing the right to the good state school place that they thought their well-positioned, semi-detached homes guaranteed them.

Or, as the Mail on Sunday put it, the lotteries are a "twisted," "cynical," "frightening new experiment in social engineering".

We are likely to be treated to a repeat of this outburst in about a month's time. March 3 will see secondary school places in Brighton and Hove allocated by random computer ballot for the first time.

A BBC survey published last week also revealed admissions lotteries were operating or planned in Hertfordshire, Northamptonshire, Milton Keynes, Derbyshire and London. But Brighton has received the most media attention because it has been billed as the first to move to a wholesale lottery admissions system. This is not strictly true. The Brighton plan is actually based around dividing the city into six local catchment areas. Lotteries, it is planned, come into play in individual areas only when there are more parental preferences for a school than places available.

This is not about throwing the names of all children in the city into a hat and giving them a school irrespective of where they live. It is, a council spokesman explained, an attempt to ensure that everyone has a chance of getting into a school in their immediate area.

But there are other motives. As Pat Hawkes, the Labour councillor who pushed through the plan on her casting vote, made clear. "Brighton and Hove is a city of haves and have-nots and the have-nots have been left out," she said, condemning the old system. This had given priority according to the distance between pupils' homes and a school, enabling those with enough money the opportunity effectively to buy a place in their favoured school by purchasing the right house.

But will the Brighton model really do the "have-nots" the favour that Labour councillors hope for and the Mail on Sunday fears?

Not according to Keith Turvey, a senior lecturer in education at Brighton University. His research found it will divide the city further by confining pupils from the most socially deprived wards to catchment areas served by a single, lower-performing secondary.

It did not please the schools either. Trevor Allen, head of Dorothy Stringer High School in Brighton, feared it could damage links with traditional feeder primaries.

Hertfordshire is further ahead than Brighton and Hove because it introduced lotteries to help decide who would get places in its seven community, single-sex schools last year. All did not go smoothly. Software problems led to 29 pupils initially not being offered places to which they were entitled. But overall it has been far less controversial - possibly because the authority never used the language of haves and have-nots. Hertfordshire has only talked in terms of giving all parents in the county who favoured a single-sex school an equal chance of getting into one. Chris Murrell, head of St Albans Girls' School, initially feared damage to her school's community links. "I am not sure that has happened yet," she said. "But it could do in the future. There are some parents who live very close to the school who wanted a place but couldn't get their children in. I can also see that this is a fairer system because everybody gets an equal chance, but that doesn't make it right."

What the lottery has not led to, however, is any noticeable difference in the school's socio-economic or racial profile. Pupils who live right next to it are very similar to those who live further away in this part of Hertfordshire.

This is likely to be the same in many other areas of the country, and it blows a hole in the right-wing press's insistence that lotteries must mean "social engineering".

The criticisms emerged again late last month when Philip Hunter, chief schools' adjudicator, said it was up to local politicians to introduce measures to break down social and racial segregation in schools.

Lotteries were instantly portrayed as the main means through which Dr Hunter thought this could be achieved. In fact, he sees them as only one of several tools available to local politicians.

He believes that 1970s-style bussing - when pupils were transported to schools far from where they lived - would be out of the question. Other measures, such as changing feeder primaries or catchment-area boundaries, could be more effective than lotteries.

"It is incredibly difficult because every time you do a thing like that, you are denying parental choice," said Dr Hunter.

And that is why people can find the idea of lotteries so offensive. They have come to believe that parents really do have a genuine choice about where their children go to school. So the anger is understandable when they find they can only express a preference and then wait for the result of a random computer draw to decide.

As Jim Knight, a schools minister, admitted last month "there might be issues" for the Government in managing the expectations raised by its use of the word "choice". By outlawing back-door selection such as interviewing, the new admissions code will reduce segregation in schools. Mr Knight recently wrote to schools, reminding them of their obligations.

But Dr Hunter warns that, even if all schools do follow the code, segregation will still exist. It will be up to local authorities to decide how much is acceptable and then act to end the rest. But does he think they will have the political courage to act? "We'll see," he said.

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