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Last Updated: Friday, 25 May 2007, 23:03 GMT 00:03 UK
Why admission by lottery seems unfair
Mike Baker byline graphic
ANALYSIS
By Mike Baker

Children at work
Is there really such a thing as parental power?
"School admissions are a lottery!"

How often have you heard that from an anguished parent?

Yet, of course, admissions are not a lottery.

Children get into schools on the basis of: the house their parents can afford to buy, the frequency with which they have been taken to church, or their performance in an entrance test.

All of these criteria can involve elements of unfairness.

By contrast a lottery is, by its very nature, a matter of random chance - it cannot be unfair.

Yet, whenever a lottery is suggested as the way to determine school admissions, most people throw up their hands in horror.

Surely, they ask, there must be a better way to decide a child's life chances?

Parental power?

Indeed, in an opinion poll this week, just 9% of people thought a ballot or a lottery was a fair way of deciding allocations at popular schools.

This made it less popular than every other method except one.

Very interestingly, in view of the recent government support for faith schools, just 8% thought priority should be given according to faith or religion.

However, what was particularly interesting about this week's poll, commissioned by the education charity, the Sutton Trust, was that it went on to put a number of realistic scenarios to the opinion poll test.

Suddenly, when faced with tough alternatives, many more people thought a ballot was not such a bad idea after all.

In one scenario, 200 children had applied for a school with just 100 places. All of the children lived within two miles of the school.

When asked which was the fairest tie-breaker, 35% picked distance from school - but almost as many, 32%, opted for a ballot.

In a second scenario, 200 children chased 100 places at a Christian faith school.

All of the children had been regularly attending church for at least two years.

Admissions appeals show only the tip of the iceberg of dissatisfaction

When asked which was the fairest tie-breaker in these circumstances, 20% said it should be on the basis of which families are "most committed to the Christian faith".

But many more, some 36%, favoured a ballot.

These findings come at an interesting time. New regulations have just come into force, implementing the Education and Inspections Act 2006.

These regulations are designed to boost parent power. So, parents will be able to call for change if they are unhappy with the quality of local schools.

If parents are still not happy, they can expect help from local councils to set up their own schools.

Other changes include open competition between providers before any new primary school is opened and new powers for successful schools to expand and admit more pupils.

Announcing the changes, schools minister Lord Adonis said they would "put more power into the hands of parents".

Well, how often have we heard that phrase?

'Name-out-of-hat'

The answer is: very often, from both this government and its Conservative predecessors.

Yet there is no sign that parents feel empowered over school choice. Few parents want to open their own school.

This week we also had the latest figures for appeals against school admissions.

They show only the tip of the iceberg of dissatisfaction, since many parents know they have little chance of winning an appeal so do not even try, despite failing to get the school of their choice.

The figures showed that primary school appeals are up 10% over last year.

This is despite the fact that falling birth rates mean there are now 100,000 fewer five-year-olds trying to get into school compared to five years ago.

There is better news at secondary level where the proportion of appeals is down on the last couple of years.

Overall, though the proportion of parents appealing against admissions in all schools remains at over 5%, much the same as it was five years ago, and much higher than a decade ago.

Parent power does not appear to have reduced levels of dissatisfaction.

'Furious reaction'

Maybe parent power will always be illusory.

Yes, there can be parent power in the independent sector, where you have more choice if you can afford the fees.

But in the state sector there is strong sense that there should be equal chances for all.

That being so, would it be more honest for politicians to admit that they cannot really offer "parent power" but they can offer an equal chance to all.

A lottery might be one way of doing that.

The name-out-of-a-hat approach might seem rather arbitrary for something so important.

Yet, as the Sutton Trust has pointed out, it is done in other countries, including parts of the USA, Sweden, and New Zealand.

Earlier this year, Brighton and Hove became the first council to opt for a ballot element in its school admissions system.

It prompted a furious reaction from some parents (although some, more quietly, supported it) and, generally, received critical media coverage.

But Brighton showed that a ballot does not have to be completely random.

Pupils will be put into ballots within certain postcodes, so proximity to schools still counts for something.

Whatever system is used, there will be winners and losers. Ballots may, at first, appear just too random, too de-motivating, and too callous.

But, until we have enough good schools to satisfy all demand, maybe it would be more honest for politicians to talk about a "parental lottery" than "parental power".

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SEE ALSO
Schools to give places by lottery
28 Feb 07 |  Education
Split on school places lottery
28 Feb 07 |  Education
School place appeals up and down
24 May 07 |  Education

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