Monday, 2 March 2009

A lottery is much fairer than selection by postcode

Schools secretary Ed Balls has asked the Schools Adjudicator to consider whether or not it is fair to children for schools to use a lottery to allocate places where there are more applications than the school can cater for. Contrary to popular (media) mythology, it has always been permissible to use a lottery in such circumstances, though the latest schools admissions code is more explicit on the subject than before. And it is a much fairer way of doing so. Indeed, the Times survey today suggests that 3.5% more parents in Brighton have gained their first choice than before it introduced its lottery (though it is true that its manner of doing so left a lot to be desired).

The main objection to lotteries has always been that they sound unfair rather than that they are so. This was a debate I used to have about their political practicality with my former colleague Phil Collins, whose views are admirably reflected in today's Times leader, and it was why I have tended to favour banding, which offers similar choices but appears less driven by chance.

Of course, such methods need to be applied with a dose of common sense. So, there should be some places for those living very close to a school, and to help twins. However, lotteries and banding are much fairer than an arbitrary line drawn on a map beyond which a parent has no chance of getting into their preferred school.

It is said that in an ideal world, nobody would want to choose schools because all would be equally good and each would have enough places to cater for demand. Apart from the improbability and cost of that outcome, there will always be variables that attract some to one school over another. Schools may offer different sports, be stronger in a particular subject, have a more progressive or more traditional curriculum.

Just as such diversity is healthy, it is equally healthy that parents should be able to choose between such schools and not be precluded simply because they live 1.8km rather than 1.7km from the school gates. And when you have 600 applications for 200 places, as with some London academies, it is palpably unfair to deny most of them the chance of a place. Selection by postcode or house price is hardly a model for comprehensive education. Moreover, attracting a broad mix of pupils is a recipe for success that was understood by those who first campaigned for comprehensives - and is now demonstrated by successful academies.

So, I trust that the adjudicator will reach a wise decision in this case. But it is rather worrying that the schools secretary appears to think that a comprehensive school can achieve a broad intake simply by taking those who live within its rather arbitary catchment area.

This post was picked up by Common Endeavour and Teachers TV News.

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