Friday, 1 February 2008

Fairness and logic in school admissions

School admissions is one of those issues where logic flies out the window. It is inherently political, and those who shout that lotteries are 'unfair' or demand the immediate closure of grammar schools should realise that. This is why I worked with David Blunkett to develop the balloting system which has meant that local authorities cannot close grammar schools, but that if there is genuinely strong local demand, a referendum on selection can be held. Opponents of grammars denounce the arrangements as unfair: what they mean is that, with the exception of Ripon where they were defeated, there has not been such demand. Yet the Tory press - especially the Daily Telegraph - works itself into a lather every now and then to suggest that the end of the grammar school is nigh. It does so again today. Things were particularly daft when the balloting rules were first published; I always thought such hysteria suggested that the paper knew rather less about parents' views than they confidently proclaimed in their leader columns. So, there is now a broad consensus between the parties that existing grammars will stay (internally their pupil vnumbers can and d0 expand) but no new ones are likely to be built.

The real debate is then about how best to admit pupils to the remaining 3000 secondary schools. David Cameron apparently supports lying and cheating in order to get into faith schools, or at least declines to disapprove of such actions. But most people want to see a system that it transparent and fair. The new admissions code is much better in this regard than earlier guidance or rules - and, incidentally, by refusing to allow schools to put first preference first, it offers a level playing field in areas with popular comprehensives and grammars. Essentially, once children in care are given places, schools can use distance or sibling to allocate places; faith schools can use adherence to religion; and schools can use banding or random allocation (aka lotteries). There should be no doubt that the fairest system, and that most likely to give all parents the best chance of getting a place in a good school, is either of the latter two methods.

The issue, then, is to what extent such methods are used: schools tend to apply some distance criteria, perhaps allocating places to those very near the school before introducing random methods; they may also keep places for siblings. Small towns are rural areas are likely to want to stick to distance and sibling, for practical reasons. But the idea that it is 'fairer' to allocate all places according to distance from school is absurd; how can selection by house price be a fair system? Of course, two other things are needed to ensure that all parents understand that they can apply for randomly allocated places: the government should do more to introduce independent choice advisers, as envisaged in the 2005 Schools White Paper (too many of them are council functionaries rather than community advocates) and to improve school buses (the 2006 Act gives poorer families the legal right to select any one of three schools within a two-six mile radius from this September, rather than settling as before for the one allocated to them by the council for transport purposes). Now, it is true that Brighton was not the best advertisement for random allocation, at least in its presentation if not its application; but a growing number of schools are showing not only that it can be done, but when they are hugely oversubscribed, it must be done.

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