The School’s Lottery

1 March 2007
The Daily Mail

The concept of choice has long supposed to be one of the central plans of
the Government’s education policy. Over the last decades, Tony Blair and
a succession of Labour education secretaries have trumpetted their
commitment to increased parental power over schools admissions. So in a
much hyped speech in 2005, the Prime Minister heralded his plans to
introduce much greater choice into the system. "Where parents are
dissatisfied,’ he promised, ‘they need a good range of schools to choose
from or, where there is no such choice, able to take the remedy into their
own hands."

But, like so much feelgood New Labour rhetoric, this pledge has turned out
to be hollow. When it comes to expanding parental rights over schooling,
the Government has presided over growing disappointment. Only yesterday, it
was revealed that over 200,000 pupils may miss out on their first choice of
secondary school this year, while it is estimated that in some parts of
Britain a third of children will be denied their preferred place.

Because of the increasing pressure and frustration, one local authority,
Brighton in Sussex, has now resorted to the drastic measure of introducing a
lottery system for over-subscribed schools in its area. Under Brighton’s
scheme, where the demand outstrips supply places will allocated by numbers
drawn from an electronic ballot. It is the first time that such a method
for deciding school rolls has been used, but other local authorities could
soon follow, particularly because the Government is supportive of this
approach. Indeed, the official new code on admissions, which will apply to
pupils transferring to secondary schools from September 2008, claims that
lotteries are an effective of promoting fairness and reducing the
middle-class dominance of certain good schools. "Random allocation can
widen access to schools for those unable to afford to buy houses near to
favoured schools and create greater social equity," says the code,
displaying the fashionable bureaucratic enthusiasm for social engineering.

But all this talk about fairness is missing the point. Random allocation
might satisfy the sub-official penpushers with their loathing for
middle-class ambition, their hatred of anything that smacks of elitism and
their obsession with deprivation, but it will do nothing to raise
educational standards. Lotteries are not about justice but about hitting
the middle-class. And they are a guaranteed way of bringing more
resentment and chaos into a system that is already facing a crisis over low
achievement.

As a teacher myself, working in a London comprehensive, I am deeply
disturbed by the message given out to pupils if the lottery approach is
widely adopted. It is an absurd way to decide the life chances of
thousands of children. The great French statesman Georges Clemenceau, who
led his country to victory in the First World War, famously said that "war
is too important to be left to the Generals." Well, education is far too
important to be left to a lottery. The whole idea represents the
trivilisation of schooling, reducing it to the status of a game of cards or
the spin of a roulette wheel. Perhaps we are seeing New Labour’s famous
addiction to gambling at work again here, with the Government encouraging
the belief that our futures should be decided by mere chance rather than
ability or hard work or genuine needs.

It is hard to imagine a more dubious or dangerous way of deciding
allocations. There are plenty of other criteria that could be used which
are more pertinent to a child’s education, such as geographical proximity or
intellectual attainment or interest in a certain subject or parental
involvement in the community. But these have been ignored because of the
fashionable, sub-Marxist eagerness to avoid any hint of recognising talent
or achievement. According to this mindset, it is better to create a
shambles in the name of egalitarianism than to encourage pupil success.

But in reality there is nothing fair about a lottery. It will undermine
families and schools, as well as making a mockery of the Labour’s promises
on parental choice. Community schools, which presently have no control
over their admissions policy but take their pupils entirely from their local
catchment area, may be hit because they could be forced to take randomly
selected pupils from outside, thereby weakening their neighbourhood ethos,
which is surely meant to be one of their virtues. The Government
dislikes the emphasis on geographical location because it is said to favour
middle-class families buying up properties near a good school. But to go
to the extreme of a lottery system, forcing schools to take pupils from a
far wider area, could be more damaging. We could end up in the absurd
situation where a child, living next door to a school, would have to take up
a place miles away, while others are brought in from far afield. As well
as weakening the spirit of community, such a change would also create
horrendous transport problems, which could only be met by expensive bussing
arrangements or parental car journeys, which the our green Government is
supposed to be discouraging.

Equally worrying is the case of a schools, such as city academies and
voluntary-aided establishments, which have some say over their own
admissions policies. My own establishment, a long-standing faith school,
has a distinctive ethos, since our allocations are decided partly by
criteria such as the demonstration of a musical or sporting interest.
Again, Tony Blair has often talked of encouraging schools like ours, with
the aim of bringing more diversity and flexibility to the education sector.
Yet lottery-based admissions could destroy our good work. In our case,
there will be no guarantee that the chosen pupils will have any interest in
music or sport. The same will be true of schools that focus on business
or the arts or languages. Specialisation will become meaningless once the
lottery is established.

There are a host of other difficulties. Families could find that siblings
will be forced to go different school if one of them has, so to speak, drawn
the short straw. The ballots could be open to serious abuse, as favoured
parents or corrupt heads or bureaucrats try to subvert the system. In
recent years, we have seen the electoral system in urban local government
become seriously tainted by widespread postal voting fraud. It is highly
possible that the same could happen in education authorities. The
administration of the ballot itself, involving checks on parents, is bound
to create more municipal bureaucracy, wasting funds that could used on
schools.

The crisis over admissions has come about entirely because of the chronic
failure of state education policies over recent decades. Parents are
desperate to get their children into decent schools because there are so
many dismal ones in the local authority system. If councils and the
Government spent more resources and energy on raising basic standards in all
schools, rather than on indulging their fixations about the social
backgrounds of parents, then we would not be in this mess. The
Government has tried to cover up the extent of the failure by massaging
figures and dumbing down exam results, but most parents know the truth.

What we need is radical reform rather than more tinkering and social
engineering of the kind represented by the lottery. Personally, I favour
the introduction of a voucher scheme whereby parents would be given an
annual sum by the Government and could choose their own places for their
children. Such a system, which works successfully in Holland — where
standards are far higher than here — would not only introduce a healthy dose
of competition into schools but would also reduce the scope for expensive
interventionist bureaucracy. Above all, it would bring in real parental
choice. There would be far more real justice in such a movement than in
the current descent into the farce of a lottery.

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