The annual secondary school offer day is behind us now. Thousands of parents and pupils across the country will be breathing a huge sigh of relief to have got a place at their first or second choice school for September.
Or they may be like Anoushka Visvalingam, in one of a significant minority of families who failed to get any of their preferred options and are waiting anxiously to see if that will change in the next few months.
The vexed issue of how to guarantee all parents a place in their preferred school has been fiercely contested since parental choice became the driving force in education policy 25 years ago. Early indications this year suggest huge variationin the chances of success between different parts of the country. In some urban areas just over half of applicants got a place at their preferred school. Elsewhere nearly every child does.
A combination of league tables, selective and semi-selective admissions criteria and the relative affluence of local communities means that in practice the schools market can be a steep hierarchy in which the most advantaged schools enjoy a cycle of strong performance and popularity but are often inaccessible to children from poorer backgrounds.
On the national offer day this year, the Sutton Trust, a charity that researches policy to improve social mobility, produced a report claiming that the top 500 all-ability schools continue to be highly socially selective, taking fewer children eligible for free school meals than the local or national averages.
One solution proposed by the Sutton Trust is wider use of lotteries for school admissions, the system used in Brighton and Hove, where Visvalingam lives with her family.
Technically known as “random allocation”, this method designates places using a ballot rather than proximity once a school is oversubscribed. In theory this should give all parents an equal chance of success while reducing social selection fuelled by wealthy families buying homes near sought-after schools. Studies have suggested school reputation can add up to £70,000 to the price of a house in the surrounding area.
But how are lotteries working in practice? An earlier study commissioned by the Sutton Trust in 2014 suggested they were being used in fewer than 50 schools. Eight of these are in Brighton and Hove, where the council introduced the scheme for its community schools 10 years ago to try to break down what had become known as a “golden halo” of expensive housing around two schools, Dorothy Stringer and Varndean, in the centre of the city.
There are people who want social justice but not at the cost of their child not being able to go to their local school
However, rather than use a pure lottery system, Brighton and Hove linked the balloting system to six catchment areas, each including one or two schools, to keep a link between schools and the local neighbourhood. Parents in the city are allowed to express three preferences, and there are two faith schools in the city that don’t take part in the scheme.
According to Visvalingam, who has worked as a primary school teacher in Brighton since before the lottery came into force, the effect has been mostly beneficial. “Before the lottery was introduced lots of people moved in year 5 to get closer to the two very popular schools,” she explains. “The lottery system has stopped that golden triangle where the house prices skyrocketed. People living where we live now couldn’t get into those schools.
“It gave everyone in those catchment areas an equal chance and also brought in people from other social areas. I would say the schools are more mixed now and most people tended to get their first or second choice.”
However, this year 147 pupils across the city failed to get any of their three preferences and 57 pupils, including Visvalingam’s daughter, who live in the catchment area of the two most popular schools also failed to get one of their choices. All have been offered out-of-catchment schools some distance from home and a vocal campaign has been launched, calling on the council to place the pupils in one their preferred choices swiftly.
“We were really shocked not to get one of our preferred schools. It is clear that without enough places there are still going to be winners and losers with a lottery system,” says Visvalingam.
“My daughter is one of a handful who is not going to the same school as everyone else from our primary. Because of the catchment system we looked at very few other schools. It will be devastating for her to be torn away from her community.”
Niki Wadden Laing is also without a place for her son. She believes that several aspects of the lottery system have made their situation worse. “The problem is that the mixture of lottery and catchments has given many parents a false sense of security that they will get a school in their local area,” she says. “Children go to visit their catchment schools, they think they will be going there with all their friends. When it doesn’t work out, it seems very unfair.”
An added complication is that the post-offer process [pdf] gives waiting parents little guarantee of a place. Parents who want to go on a waiting list for a higher preference school are put back into a new ballot, which means a parent who got their second choice could still get priority over those without a place at all. Without a distance criterion to rank pupils on a waiting list, the rejected families feel they are in the dark about what might happen next.
Brighton and Hove council points to a record number of first-choice preferences achieved – 84% – higher than in many other urban areas. It said it is trying to address a shortage of places with a new free school.
But a plan to redraw the catchment areas again has led to a furious debate among parents. Local parent Nick Imrie, whose children are still in primary school, started a Facebook group to stimulate discussion on the new catchments. It quickly attracted more than 800 members. “I think people didn’t have a way of expressing their views before,” he said. “It has been interesting for me because it also shows that there are parents being shoehorned into schools they don’t want.
“There probably is less social selection than before the lottery. But Brighton being Brighton, there are still people who want social justice but not at the cost of their child not being able to go to their local school. So local schools still reflect house prices.”
Early research into the impact of the Brighton lottery was carried out by the Centre for Market and Public Organisation [pdf] at Bristol University in 2010. This suggested that its impact may be restricted by the use of catchment areas and entrenched patterns of social and private housing, a view reinforced by a more recent analysis of school intakes and social deprivation in the city.
Education data company School Dash compares the numbers of children eligible for free school meals in each school with other local schools and the income deprivation affecting children index (IDACI). The two most popular schools, Dorothy Stringer and Varndean, still appear to have more advantaged intakes than their immediate community and other local schools. Dorothy Stringer has 9% of pupils eligible for free school meals and Varndean 12.5%, while the local IDACI score is 26%.
Meanwhile some schools in different catchment areas are still taking far higher proportions of disadvantaged children. The Brighton Aldridge community academy has 34% eligible for free meals alongside a local IDACI of 23%. So would it be fairer to ditch the catchment areas and have a pure lottery where every school was open to all the city’s families?
Green councillor and year 6 parent Amanda Knight got the school she wanted for her daughter. She supports the idea of a lottery but thinks every school should keep its own catchment area to maintain a community link, reduce transport costs and the environmental impact of pupils travelling long distances.
“I believe it would be better if everyone just went to their local school, maybe with more than one school in each catchment to give an element of choice,” she says.
The experience in Brighton and Hove, after 10 years of using lotteries, proves they are not a panacea. But most experts in the area of admissions and social segregation say it is virtually impossible to devise a system that is fair and gives all parents absolute choice without keeping plenty of empty places in schools.
Anne West, professor of education policy at the London School of Economics, who carried out the 2014 research into lotteries, says they still have the potential to be fairer than other admissions systems. “But you probably need to use catchments so that children aren’t travelling long distances and it depends how those catchment areas are used,” she says.
“They could be drawn to create a social mix, but that may mean a trade off between parent choice and social mixing. In the end this is a question of priorities. Without plenty of spare capacity it is very hard to guarantee both.”