Ed Balls: "Lotteries should be used as a last resort"
Hundreds of thousands of 11-year-olds in England are finding out which secondary school they will be moving up to next September.
The results of all applications for places are now announced on a single National Offer Day, when letters go out from local authorities.
In some areas parents who applied online can also look up the results on the web and will know them already.
Ministers say their policy of lotteries to decide places may be unfair.
Schools Secretary Ed Balls has asked the chief schools adjudicator to look at how widely such "random allocation" is used and whether it is fair to children.
Mr Balls said: "The code allows a role for random allocation, but I would be very concerned if it was happening other than as a last resort when other ways of allocating places have been exhausted."
This is not what his department's latest admissions code - which came into effect only last month - says on the issue.
Random allocation of school places can be good practice ... It may be used as the sole means of allocating places ...
Government admissions code
In the guidelines on what schools should do if they have more applicants than places, the code says: "Random allocation of school places can be good practice particularly for urban areas and secondary schools."
It also says: "It may be used as the sole means of allocating places or alongside other oversubscription criteria, but only after criteria giving priority to children in care and the admission of children with a statement of special educational needs."
One of the main reasons is to thwart parents who choose to buy homes near the best schools, hoping to get places on the basis of proximity - the usual main deciding factor.
"Random allocation can widen access to schools for those unable to afford to buy houses near to favoured schools and create greater social equity," the code says.
But Mr Balls now has doubts: "Personally I'm not sure that's fair," he said.
"I have sympathy with the view that a lottery system can feel arbitrary, random and hard to explain to children in years 5 and 6 who don't know what's going to happen and don't know which children in their class they're going to going on to secondary school with."
Mr Balls added that while the Schools Admissions Code had "transformed the fairness of the system," it would never feel fully fair to parents if they could not get their child into their first choice school.
This year's figures will not be available for another couple of weeks but it is likely that one in five will fall into this category.
The pattern will vary across the country, with allocations mostly going with preferences in some areas while in others, perhaps half of families will not get the school they listed as their first preference.
In practice, the use of lotteries is very limited. The exact extent is going to be investigated for the government by the schools adjudicator, who will report in the autumn.
Brighton and Hove council introduced a system that uses a ballot as a tie-break in determining places in its eight secondary schools - with a particular problem in two catchment areas which each have two secondary schools very close to one another.
Councillor Vanessa Brown, who introduced the system there, said: "That's because although all four schools are very good schools, one in each area is perceived by the parents to be more preferable than the other."
She said 81.9% of parents this year had been given their first preference schools.
In Northamptonshire, three schools are now using random allocation within a system of fair banding to try to achieve a comprehensive intake.
A county council spokesman said all three were previously using admission criteria that did not comply with the new code of practice.
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