Fair school admissions: are lotteries the answer?

February 12, 2016

Thanks for inviting me tonight. It’s always cheery to realise that you’re too old to be a Young anything, but as I am now over the age of 31 I realise this is one of at least two reasons why I will never be a Young Fabian…

I want to make three points tonight about the subject of school admissions

1. Why I, as a horrible neoliberal, am interested in fair admissions

I believe in independent state schools, self governing, competing with each other in a public market.

But this isn’t a libertarian philosophy. There is no right winger / free market liberal / GERM-o-phile / call us what you will, who doesn’t accept that in markets, especially public markets, that there needs to be regulation.

Belief in choice and competition, after all, rests on a belief that this will lead to lower prices (not applicable in this situation), innovation, new services, and a better result for end users.

But to have the best rise to the top, and for that innovation to succeed, you have to have a level playing field. That’s why (neo)liberals are in favour of free markets, and free competition – not unfair competition. That latter doesn’t lead to a free market, but crony capitalism, of the type that the Right and liberals have always fought against. Crony capitalism harms users – it’s an abuse of monopoly power which results in a poorer service.

That’s always something to be resisted. But it’s especially something to be resisted when the effects are distributed unequally – where the poorer service hits disproportionately on poor and vulnerable and those least able to secure improvements or alternatives by their own efforts.

So I want schools to compete against each other, but fairly. And so a system in which the rules are systematically tilted against one set of schools – via admissions, but also via funding, or teacher supply, or buildings, or curriculum, or any of the other inputs needed for an education system – isn’t a fair system, and is one which should be addressed.

2. Why pushing for fair admissions is not about harming choice – and indeed is an argument for more choice

It’s worth noting that the UK never had a definite commitment to neighbourhood schooling where every child from a neighbourhood attends the same local school. The 1944 Education Act that established free secondary education for all children in England and Wales said “pupils should be educated in accordance with wishes of parents insofar as that was possible within limits of public expenditure”

And as Liz Kendall said in 2013 “Some people criticise Labour for backing patient choice, saying what most people want is a good local hospital. This is true. But what if your local hospital isn’t good?”

A good local school is an end, not a means. Of course everyone wants a good local school. The question is how do you get it?

My argument is choice, and using that – in conjunction with other incentives and levers including top down intervention from government – to raise standards.

So an admissions system should offer parents choice (or technically, a preference), rather than mandate they attend their closest school, or allocate them one school randomly (a point I will come back to below when I discuss lotteries)

We should recognise that choice is not, as is occasionally fashionably dismissed, a “London thing”. Sure, choice is more prevalent in London than in say Northumberland or Yorkshire. But the key point is not many people live there to start with! 65% of the population live in urban or suburban areas, which are largely pretty densely populated. In fact, choice is both viable and exercised by many. Professor Simon Burges of Bristol University has shown that for secondary schools,

– 75% of all pupils have 3 schools within 4km of their house,

– and over a third (36%) have 3 schools within 2km.

These figures are higher for FSM pupils (because they tend to live in urban areas) –

– 75% within 3km

– and 48% within 2km.

The net effect is that only 46% of pupils attend their nearest secondary school. Even in rural areas, only 59% attend their closest school!

Furthermore, who benefits from there not being choice? You don’t need to be a market fetishist to recognise that it is more often that not, bluntly, Labour voters who lose out from there not being a system within the state sector that allows them to exercise choice.

There academic evidence around school choice that suggests that

• families want broadly similar things, but exercise options and prioritise differently depending on their socio economic status

• poorer families also have fewer options as to realistically available schools because of the house price premium. The more limited access to ‘good’ schools accounts for the majority of the unequal distribution of pupils from different socio-economic groups across schools in England – about two thirds.

So we need more options for creating good schools, and more choice – which is where free schools come in, as well as the sponsored Academy process for taking over and improving underperforming schools via sponsors

But we do need, perhaps two things alongside that, which I offer up to the Fabians as policy ideas to discuss.

– RSCs or Local Authorities being able to place a requirement on Academies to expand. The call for more control over school places is commonly expressed as “councils need a power to build new schools”, which is both a) the existing status quo and b) wrong (councils should not be both the provider and overseer of schools). But there is an inequity when it comes to expanding schools. Councils can mandate LA schools to expand their rolls to meet increased demand, but have no such power over Academies. This can often mean that poorer quality LA schools have to expand if there are insufficient good ones, and good Academies in an area demur to grow (the recent NSN research showing that around half of all new places in the past 5 years have been set up in RI or Inadequate schools is a pretty direct consequence of this approach). I’ve written before at length about how the commissioning of new places and new schools ought to happen; but alongside that, there’s a case for bringing Academies into this framework whereby they could be mandated to expand if necessary – with an appeals mechanism, perhaps to the RSC, if an Academy feels it would not be in the pupils’ interests for it to grow as suggested.

– Secondly, some form of greater standardisation of the admissions code. I have – it may surprise you to hear – some sympathy for Melissa Benn when she talks in her previous writings about whether Academies should have the right to design their own admissions taken away. This would not be a small thing; not least it would come very quickly into the area of whether faith schools could still set admissions based on faith (and within that, whether the sub group of faith schools sometimes known as highly selective faith schools could still operate in that way). Regardless of your opinions on faith schools, that’s a politically thorny issue. There is some evidence that schools who are their own admissions authorities have a more unrepresentative intake compared to their local area than those who don’t manage their admissions. If you come back to my first point – that liberals believe in a fair market – then it seems reasonable to argue the principle that the national interest in everyone having a fair and equal opportunity to express a preference for a school under a common process ought to outweigh the school’s interests in setting at least some of its own criteria – whether that is for noble purposes or more self interested ones. If – and it’s a big if – government can find a way to address issues of faith admissions that balances religious freedoms with this type of system reform, then I think there’s a strong argument for at least moving towards this.

3. Lotteries, and human nature

A brief divergence into amateur political philosophy.

Conservatism has been described by some philosophers an anti ideology. It specifically sets itself against grand unifying visions and philosophies of the type that some other movements – let’s say, the Fabians – do.

And it does so firstly because of practicalities, and secondly because it recognises humans are flawed, and therefore not well disposed to large scale transformation operating on how people ought to think and behave.

So there is limited mileage, argue conservatives, in setting a grand theoretical plan for the state. Instead, philosophers such as Michael Oakeshott argue that the approach of politicians ought to be reasonable, and practical, and pliable. Counter ideological, in fact.

So what does this all mean for the proposal I was asked to talk about tonight, specifically admissions lotteries? They ought to be a perfect solution. They eliminate any ‘unfair’ advantage by virtue of residential segregation or house price advantage. They almost certainly would lead to greater ethnic and social mixing. And thus they are ‘fair’.

So, in principle, I think they can work. As can fair banding, which can also make a representative intake for a school, and is more commonly used in England, particularly in London.

But something of the Oakeshottian in me demurs. And that is that they are unpopular.

Not on the face of it – a TES survey in 2014 suggested parents would be in favour of them.

But the fact we have residential segregation – and some excellent work by my new Policy Exchange colleague David Goodhart shows this very clearly – shows that individuals’ revealed preferences are strong. People like to cluster – socially and ethnically. Birds of a feather and so forth.

And so once you get beyond principles, the operation of lotteries is hugely unpopular. There are practical reasons often cited – for example lotteries can place a child who lives close to a school not in that institution, but in one on the other side of the town / city / local area. Far from being fair, many feel that a lottery is, because it is uncontrollable, unfair.

But I will freely admit and pre-empt the inevitable point from the floor that also on occasion this cited opposition can be an conscious or subconscious cover for those who feel they shouldn’t be ‘disadvantaged’ (by which they mean, in truth, that they should be able to maintain their advantages through, for example, having bought an expensive house near a good school).

But – and this is the key point-  this doesn’t matter. Or at least, the reasons for opposition don’t matter so much, compared to the fact that there is opposition to them

Politicians in a democracy have two choices. They can drive through change regardless of its unpopularity. Or they look to achieve the art of the possible.

There’s a case for both, on occasion. And I’ve not been backwards in coming forwards about defending all governments’ right to push through things it believes as right even when unpopular.

But on this, I can’t see a way to square the circle of opposition.

My view is therefore that the Coalition was right to ban area wide lotteries because they would have been wildly unpopular.

So yes, I am attracted to some of Melissa and Comprehensive Future’s thinking around tweaks to the code.

And I think, as I said above, that there may be a case for stripping schools of admissions powers – which would be a big shift.

And I would happily have individual schools use lotteries which parents can choose to opt in to or not opt into.

But I wouldn’t make it the only system.

This blog is an extended version of a speech given to Young Fabian education network, 2nd February 2016

Join our mailing list