Postcode lottery

School admissions are one of the great mysteries of the modern education system, along with where sports science graduates actually end up, the results of students coming out of private schools… and how Michael Gove still has his job.

Political commentary aside, it does remain an interesting area of debate.  How do schools assign places in times of excess demand and is it really working?

Generally for schools of all levels you need to be living in a catchment area – basically somewhere roughly nearby where you can reasonably travel to and from with ease.  A school bus usually suffices in the school’s book of definitions when it comes to transport, for example.

This in itself creates a fair bit of heated debate among parents.  For example, the house prices around some of the best comprehensives in the country can be significantly higher than similar dwellings a bit further out.  Does this mean that, to be a catchment area for a school, you have to be wealthy?  Are we unintentionally creating a ‘top education for the rich’ system?

Of course, there are parents out there who want the best for their kids and that’s completely fine by me.  Then again, you could argue that some parents are trying to beat the system, including those who register addresses in relatives names to get a place at a prestigious school.  Such things sound far-fetched, but not unimaginable.

All of this can, on occasion, create an excess of demand for school places.  What we are frequently seeing in England are schools using two key methods to try and select which students they will accept…

The lottery

It is as simple as it sounds, the names (or more commonly those in a certain postcode within the catchment area) all go into a pot and the schools picks that year’s class.  It’s fairly indiscriminate and you could argue it’s nice and fair for people.  It stops people paying out more to guarantee a place… simply because there is no guarantee.  You could have spent three times more for your house than the family down the road, but you are no less-likely to get your kids into a school as a result.

Of course, the parents who shell out great sums of money or try and beat the system are not the greatest fans of the lottery idea.  I mean, if they’re paying for the privilege (or indeed, beating the system) then surely that should count for something?


Banding is something which many are not so familiar with, but it does happen.  Basically, to ensure a mixed-ability school, the school admin pick a cross section of abilities, taking a sample of children depending on their results.  It gives the school a nice, diverse set of pupils with different schools and weaknesses.

From a school’s perspective, it works out two ways.  OK, so they haven’t just picked out the brightest students, which presents a risk to their results and thus reputation.  However, with a wide range of skills on offer in each year then it offers the potential for the school to see steady improvement over all areas.  Each student has different preferences so it allows the school to be diverse in what it offers, even if the students aren’t the strongest they could have theoretically picked.

It gives everyone a fair chance.  It takes money out the equation, which is perhaps for the better.

The BBC reported very recently that the Sutton Trust had found that such methods, especially banding, were all on the rise.  Banding in schools has risen in 5 years from 95 schools to 121, according to the new research.  On top of that, 42 other schools are currently using the lottery system.

Why, though? Well, one of the cited possible reasons is the growth of academies, who can set their own rules of admission, providing they provide fair access and stick within the boundaries of the law.  With this in mind, it’s hardly surprising that as the number of academies has risen over the last few years, the specific ways of admitting pupils are rising too.

Of course, when you remember that there are 20,000 schools in this country, the numbers don’t really register as significant.  However, with more and more schools trying to cut out the red tape (regardless of what you think about them!) then perhaps we might see this percentage rise even further.

The Sutton Trust see this all as a good thing, remarking that such increases are ‘encouraging’ when it comes to getting a balanced intake.  The report goes as far as to recommend that such systems are implemented more and more, especially in light of the fact that a report they published earlier suggested that pupils from poorer backgrounds were more sparsely seen at some of the better schools in the country.

Of course, with all of these things you’ll see a bit of controversy.  Parents have done a bit of complaining about this, arguing that the school selection system shouldn’t be reduced to lotteries.  The founder of Parents Aloud (a campaign group who are vocal on the issue) have decried it as ‘disgusting’ and NetMums founder Siobhan Freegard warned that such tactice could make the problem of school places worse, especially when parents end up with their children going to different schools.

Ultimately, when I look at this, I see a lot more fair access into schools thanks to lotteries.  It is possible to have different social backgrounds all present in the same school, creating less of a social imbalance.  Parents who spend vast amounts of money in these cases can carry a sense of entitlement.  Remember that every parent has an equal right – the system is slowly changing to reflect this.

For me, the use of banding is also reasonable, since it allows schools to have a broad range of skills, meaning that we are driven away from pointless specialisms, something I’ve never agreed with.  However, I think we have to be careful with that – we need to fully understand how schools perform their banding.  Do they assume that the richer among us are the brighter?  If so, then all of a sudden things become very different and the whole house of cards starts to tumble…



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Laura is a Francophile with a passion for literature and linguistics. She also loves skiing, cooking and painting.