Playing the school place lottery

In the 1970s, when I started teaching, the issue of banding was seen as contentious by many educationalists as it felt like social engineering. Nowadays, some academies, and other schools, have not only adopted the practice but have also, in some cases, gone further and turned admission into a straightforward lottery. In a few cases they have combined the two approaches and created lotteries for each group. For parents in those rural areas where there is in reality only one school their children can attend this must seem like some form of fantasy world.

When lotteries were first mooted local authorities still managed the admissions process for almost all schools. Now over half of secondary schools are their own admissions authorities. That probably doesn’t pose a problem at present as we are close to the bottom of the demographic cycle and pressure on secondary school places is not yet intense across mush of England. However, in five years time things will be different. Imagine a world where all secondary schools are their own admissions authorities, and use a banded lottery system. You are a parent of a child in the middle band – an average kind of Jo(e) – What happens if your first choice school is over-subscribed and you lose the lottery? Suppose the same is true of your second and third schools. No problem, the local authority must find you a school for Jo(e), and if it is more than the statutory walking distance they must pick up the travel bill as well under present arrangements.

So, the middle class parent that once might have bid up the price of houses in the catchment area of a local school they wanted their child to attend could now become a burden on the taxpayer as the taxi arrives every morning for the school-run to a distant school. Now that won’t happen in London because there is free travel across the Capital for secondary school pupils, so parents wouldn’t have to pay as they would elsewhere.

Indeed, the concern over the freedom schools have to impose financial burdens on local authorities through their admissions policies is no doubt behind the rapid move to a ‘nearest school’ transport policy by many local authorities. In Oxfordshire that has not gone down well with some parents whose school will be altered as a result of the new policy.

In the end the question for the Treasury may well be whether it is cheaper to let schools picks pupils on a basis or ‘fairness’ or for parents to exercise parental choice regardless of their child’s ability. What may not be acceptable will be each individual school creating a burden on local authorities through admissions policies that push up transport bills paid for from Council Tax just so that they can say they have a fair spread of pupils.