Wokingham was a focus of attention this week when councillors decided to change the admissions process to a lottery. Linked primaries are now abolished there, and instead there are wide catchment areas designed to encourage more of a social mix. This is all supposed to make the admissions system in Wokingham fairer. So will it work?
We’ve been here before, when Brighton and Hove introduced their own lottery system in 2007. However a report brought out by Allen, Burgess and McKenna last year said that the school lottery process in Brighton and Hove was still very heavily influenced by catchment areas, and in their opinion, children from poorer areas still did not stand a very good chance of getting into better schools, because of where they lived. This is because in the case of Brighton, the higher performing schools tend to be in the centre of the city, where the high quality houses tends to be, whereas the lower performing ones are clustered in areas of poor quality housing stock. Therefore the policy had the effect of slightly increasing social segregation over the course of three years, exacerbated by parents moving into catchment areas with good schools. “The main lesson of our analysis is that the introduction of a lottery on its own is not enough to equalise access to the high-performing popular schools,” said Rebecca Allen of the Institute of Education, London.
So even though we know that a lottery system doesn’t necessarily work, they are still being introduced. Roughly 25% of council areas contain at least one school running its own admissions lottery, and Gove is keen for this to be extended as the responsibility for distributing school places is taken away from councils and given to individual schools. Admittedly in principle this means that some children from disadvantaged backgrounds are able to attend better schools than they might otherwise have done (but as we have learned, by no means all). Plus the social conscience of the local council might be appeased by using such a process. However for many pupils it just means long journeys to schools even though there may be one on their doorstep, and for parents it means considering an expensive house move to enable their children to attend the school of their choice.
I have other concerns as well, about schools being allowed to ditch the Schools Admissions Code of 2007 and go it alone. When I looked at the admissions criteria to the Vardy Academy a few years ago, I saw evidence of covert selection by hobbies. In other words, if you had taken piano lessons for a couple of years, or attended an after-school sports club, then you took preference over children who hadn’t. This was a very clever way of ensuring nice, educable children from middle class homes were given places, ensuring that the school could easily maintain its league table position without too much extra effort. Similarly schools are very good at requiring expensive uniforms, producing shiny prospectuses and running so-called apititude tests for music and the like that indirectly favour children from certain backgrounds, even though it mgiht not immediately seem like this on the surface.
Is there a better way? Well, before its demise in the early 1990s, the Inner London Education Authority used banding to distribute pupils. Everyone would sit a test to measure ability, and then children were evenly distributed across local schools so that every school contained a similar number of children in each ability group. Coupled with generous funding for school transport, this could be a really powerful tool for improving schools across the board if any government was brave enough to bring it back.
At the moment, however, we see pupils and parents as very much the weaker partners in the school admissions process – they are expected to navigate school choice options intellgently, to the advantage of their children, but then also criticised for colonising certain schools on the grounds that they are high performing. Parents are effectively damned if they do, and damned if they don’t. And that doesn’t look like it can be resolved on any universal scale any time soon.
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