Education & Family

School place lottery 'did not improve access for poor'

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Media captionReport co-author Simon Burgess says lottery systems play an important role

A controversial lottery system for secondary school places has failed in one of its key aims - to give poorer children equal access to top schools, academics say.

Researchers looked at Brighton and Hove which introduced England's first city-wide lottery two years ago.

They say pupils in the poorest areas still have little chance of getting into the most popular schools.

Brighton and Hove Council says the system is fairer than the previous one.

It uses a lottery (also known as random allocation) on top of a catchment area system.

The city is divided into catchment areas and if a school is over-subscribed with applications from that area, a lottery is used as a tie-breaker to decide who should get a place.

In the past, places went to pupils who lived closest to the schools, leading critics to say pupils were being "selected by mortgage".

Now, families living in wealthier areas close to their favoured school might not get a place there.

The changes sparked a major protest in Brighton, but they were declared to be fair by the Schools Adjudicator last year.

Deprived areas

Research presented to the British Educational Research Association on Friday says the system does not give equal chances to all pupils because catchment areas are still the main determinants of access to particular schools.

The new catchment areas are drawn in such a way that families in the poorest neighbourhoods still have little chance of getting into the most popular schools, according to the academics.

The most popular schools are in the centre of the city, while the most deprived areas are to the east and far west.

"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, and Simon Burgess and Leigh McKenna from Bristol University in their report.

"The drawing of the catchment area boundaries is central to the outcome of the reform."

The researchers say if anything, socio-economic segregation has increased slightly, although some students from wealthier neighbourhoods were now attending less academically successful secondaries than they might have expected to previously.

"These are the primary group losing out from the reform, balanced by a more diffuse group of winners who gained access to the higher performing schools," the report says.

Fairer

Simon Burgess said there were two slightly different messages from the findings - but they were not contradictory.

He said although there was some "evening out", the lottery had not equalised the chances of poorer pupils getting into the highest-performing schools.

"We all hoped and expected that the use of a lottery as opposed to proximity would make school admissions a little fairer.

"We were puzzled as to why that appeared not to be true. The reason is the catchment area."

Brighton and Hove Council says it is too early to draw firm conclusions about the lottery.

A spokesman said: "The aim was to create a system that is fairer to more people than the previous system and ensure children could get places at a school that's near to them. We argue that these aims have been achieved.

"The geographical spread across the city of our secondary schools meant that under the previous system children in large areas of the city were unable to get places at their local school - because they were too far away in terms of home to school distance - and were having to travel across the city to other schools instead.

"Under the catchment area based system we now have, all children get priority for a school that's near to them."

The council will review the system in 2012 as agreed when it was adopted, he said.

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