Scrapping Lotteries?

by Harry on March 2, 2009

The Telegraph reports that Ed Balls suggests that school admissions lotteries may be scrapped because they are unfair. I’ve dug around to find the actual speech, but can’t find it anywhere, and don’t entirely trust the report (or the Observer report, which makes him seem less hostile to lotteries) to have gotten the issues exactly right. The “twins” argument (that lotteries split up twins into different schools) is terrible — it is easy to build a sibling rule into a lottery (and that is what, for example, the Milwaukee voucher program lotteries have). This argument is pretty bad too:

“The issue of lotteries is causing some concern to parents around the country,” he said. “I have sympathy with the view that a lottery system can feel arbitrary, random and hard to explain to children who don’t know what’s going to happen and don’t know which children in their class they’re going on to secondary school with.

It is having the kid rejected, and having her go to a school other than her friends, that is the problem here, not the lottery — it’s an inevitable feature of school choice, and in fact has been with us since 1944 (the 11-plus lottery was abolished in lots of places after a while, but even in comprehensive LEAs friends got split up to go to religious or single sex schools, or just to some other school that had a nicer swimming pool, at the whim of their parents).

Can anyone point me to the whole speech, or explain what is really going on?

(It’s nice to see, by the way, that the Tories plan to abolish the lotteries — give power back to the state provider, where it belongs, that’s what I say.)



Pete 03.02.09 at 5:35 pm

I think this is just some sort of evolution from the successful deployment of the phrase “postcode lottery” to poison discourse about local government.

The only alternative to selection by a random process is selection by a non-random process, which is clearly what’s being promoted here. Once selection by criteria is established as normal it only remains to fight over the criteria.


dave 03.02.09 at 6:22 pm

rm post from banned commenter Lex/Dave


Adam Roberts 03.02.09 at 8:22 pm

I’m an atheist and my wife’s a Liberal Jew. We live in the catchment area of two very good State schools (‘good’ by repute, and according to league table); but one is Catholic and the other C of E and neither will accept out kids. This leaves us, practically, without a choice: our kids will have to go to the not so good other school. I struggle to find any sense of the word ‘fair’ that applies this circumstance; particularly from the pov of the kids themselves. (In effect, these schools are saying: ‘you Jews are not welcome here.’)

Actually a couple of ‘choices’ are available to us, but I break out the scare quotes for them. One would be for us, as parents, to lie; go to Church and pretend to be Christian. Lots of parents do it; a level of middle class mendacity the Dail Mail seems disinclined to condemn.

Then again we could pay very large sums and swallow our socialist principles to send our kids to private schools. Actually it’s the private sector that is the hidden item in this whole story. For a long time the govt has relied on it to soak up enough of the demand to keep state sector class sizes manageable and avoid the sprectre of too full schools and kids being denied their ‘choice’. But the credit crunch has caused parents who previously might have been happy to drop tens of thousands on their kids’ educations to reappraise; maybe the state sector’s not so bad after all. Hence this year’s crisis.

Nothing short of wholesale reform of this sorry mess, it seems to me, will do.


Foghorn Leghorn 03.02.09 at 9:28 pm

Unfair compared to what? Rationing based on ability to buy a house near a good school?

San Francisco has had a school-district wide lottery for about a decade. It’s not perfect, however, at the same time there’s been a secular trend upward in school quality.
At least in the past 8 years, schools there can improve with headsnapping speed (my local state elementary school went from no-way-would-you-send-your-kid-there to cut-out-your-kidneys-for-a-place in 3-4 years, thanks to the lottery and a Spanish immersion program. That’s despite San Francisco having a strong private school sector, which tends to drain off a large chunk of the upper-middle class kids.

The system is not perfect, and is a pain in the arse to navigate, and somewhat rewards high-information parents (most parents tour 14+ schools, some more than 25-30, and knowing which schools will have a lot of slots taken up by siblings is an advantage), but it’s better than a catchment areas -plus-magnet schools before. In terms of segregation, it’s lumpy, but still better than most U.S. urban school districts.

Plus, the lottery system creates, by reason of the element of luck involved, a feeling of valuing of getting into a good or up-and-coming school district school, which helps attract and keep the upper-middle class parents into the school district schools.

There was actually an article in “Reason” magazine praising the school choice/lottery system in San Francisco, which will probably be the only time Reason magazine writes an approving articel about San Francisco City government.


sanbikinoraion 03.02.09 at 11:13 pm

Adam, that’s an argument for eliminating state faith schools, not for discontinuing lotteries, innit?


LizardBreath 03.02.09 at 11:18 pm

We live in the catchment area of two very good State schools (‘good’ by repute, and according to league table); but one is Catholic and the other C of E and neither will accept out kids.

Wait, what? The UK government runs schools that you’re not allowed to go to unless you say you’re Christian? Really? Man, that’s weird.


quanticle 03.03.09 at 4:03 am


There is no official separation of church and state in Britain. In fact, if you take a strict interpretation of things, Anglicanism is the official state religion of the UK.


Frances 03.03.09 at 7:20 am

Too true. Not only are they allowed to discriminate against children on the grounds of religion but they are allowed to discriminate against teachers who also need to pretend a religion (and if its a catholic school could be a good idea to lie about your divorce).

My husband works in (state)teacher education and its hilarious watching all these good fresh faced standard English pagans (frequently prepared to go to fortune tellers etc. but not knowing why there are cows and sheep in attendence at christmas cribs) putting themselves through the catholic teachers certificate in order to be allowed to teach religion in catholic schools. As a good athiest lapsed catholic I have had great fun explaining transubstantion v consubstantiation and what the Immaculate Conception actually is only to discover that I have been dutifully repeated at assemblies. The opportunities for sabotage are obviousalthough I have not succumbed so far …

All fuelled by the Blessed Tony and his love fest with ‘faith’ schools (where did all this faith come from they used to be straightforwardly religious – nothing about what you believed you just were catholics (i.e. not ‘proddydogs’) when I was at school.

But in my day the catholic schools tended to be rougher and full of second generation Irish (with some progeny of Polish airmen). Now they have become much more attractive to the middle classes – thus conversions (or at least going back to your long lost roots). On the plus side the schools themselves (particularly primary schools) are frequently lovely caring places that you would be happy to send small people to unlike my early experiences of the sixties that gave you a useful if deeply frightening exposure to cruelty. This can run deep. My eighty year old mother gave a truly impressive performance in an amateur version of Once a cathlic as Sister Basil. I believe it was an accurate rendition of fond memories of the Presentation nuns in 1930s Ireland


Cian 03.03.09 at 9:41 am

What everyone else said about faith schools. I wouldn’t say its the thing that most disgusted me about Labour (so many things to choose from), but its up there. The only local primary school within reasonable walking distance is CofE. So if they don’t get in we’ll have to drive them somewhere else.


dsquared 03.03.09 at 9:56 am

The UK government runs schools that you’re not allowed to go to unless you say you’re Christian?

Not quite. If the school has places, it’s not allowed to discriminate (there are plenty of Muslim kids at my local CoE primary). If it’s oversubscribed, it’s allowed to use religious attendance as a criteria for allocating places. Apparently both the Catholic and CoE school near Adam are oversubscribed (though it should be noted that if they were secular schools, they would be just as oversubscribed and it would be someone else’s kid who had to go to the “not so good” school. As long as there are differences between quality of schools, this problem is going to exist; the fundamental problem is the inequality rather than the way it’s distributed).


dsquared 03.03.09 at 9:58 am

(where did all this faith come from they used to be straightforwardly religious – nothing about what you believed you just were catholics (i.e. not ‘proddydogs’)

erm yes, this quasi-ethnic approach to religion (and the use of sectarian epithets) went rather out of fashion after the Good Friday agreement.


Katherine 03.03.09 at 10:05 am

Adam, if I were you I’d not worry so much and send them to the bog standard, non-religious “choice” to which you refer. I’m sure there’s research somewhere (although I’m afraid I’m not inclined to look for it) that suggests that the home environment and attitude to learning is at least as important, if not more so, than the “quality” of the school. And I use the scare quotes there for quality, since there isn’t any current way for a parent to truly access information on that – league tables certainly don’t do the job.

Perhaps I’m being defensive – my parents stuck to their principles and sent me and my sister to the local bog-standard comp, and we did fine.


Brownie 03.03.09 at 11:07 am

If anyone is unhappy with their school allocation, go here for free advice (or get a lawyer for a few hundred pounds). And if you feel genuinely wronged, appeal. More than a third of appeals are successful. In fact, the scale of overturned decisions is even greater than this as some schools cave in before the appeal process begins, whether because there is an acknowledgement that they didn’t adhere to their own admissions criteria or because they simply can’t be bothered with the hassle of an appeal.


Phil 03.03.09 at 11:41 am

If the school has places, it’s not allowed to discriminate

Well, let’s assume that parents have a free choice in which school they want their kids to attend, and let’s assume that some schools are believed to be better than others. Let’s also assume that parents are encouraged to believe that their beliefs can be grounded in evidence – and supplied with authoritative evidence to ground them in – so that parental rankings of good schools are likely to converge. Let’s also assume that people operate on the rule of 7 plus or minus 2, so it doesn’t really matter which schools are in the local top ten, because nobody is going to remember any more than the local top five.

How likely is it that a top-five school will ‘have places’?

The brochures we looked at three years ago put it slightly differently; they said they’d start by applying faith-based criteria, and take non-believers if they had places left at the end of the process. The criteria were ranked, like successively coarser filters; in the case of the RC school it was something like
1. Siblings.
2. Families who have the same priest as the Head.
3. Families whose priest the Head knows personally.
4. Families whose priest we’ve heard good things about.
5. Families whose priest we haven’t actually heard bad things about.
6. Other Roman Catholics.
7. High Anglicans.
8. Orthodox.
9. Low Anglicans.
10. Methodists, Baptists, Anabaptists, Quakers, Shakers, Muggletonians etc.
11. Heathens.

For the CofE church it was more like

1. Siblings
2. Anglicans.
3. Other church-attending Christians.
4. Other Christians who can remember being inside a church.
5. People who like the Nine Lessons and Carols and listen to Thought for the Day.
6. Believers in other religions (except Satanists).
7. Oh go on then, Satanists, as long as they take it seriously and don’t just do it for the sex and drugs.
8. People who aren’t into organised religion as such they’re more sort of spiritual you know?
9. Atheists (we like a jolly good argument!)
10. Other believers in any religion or none.

Seriously, the CofE school in our area definitely doesn’t exclude Jews (or believers in any other faith), and I’d be surprised if Adam’s did. But actually gaining admission does depend on the numbers.


Phil Cook 03.03.09 at 12:49 pm

In response to Harry’s request for further info on Balls’s position, I hope this link to his Department’s press release on the topic and letter to the Schools Adjudicator helps.


LizardBreath 03.03.09 at 2:35 pm

7: I knew there wasn’t an official separation of church and state, but running schools that are formally permitted to discriminate on the basis of religion surprised me (that is, I didn’t think it was forbidden by some principle of UK law, it just seemed like an unlikely sort of thing to do). Learn something new every day.


harry b 03.03.09 at 3:05 pm

I’m a defender of funding and cooperating in the running of faith schools (too long to go into here). I do think that what is weird depends on what you’re used to. Brits would find it weird to have principals who have no power over hiring, evaluation, implementing curriculum, providing incentives or rewarding success,…

But do you want to hear something even I find weird. Local Authorities fund transport for Catholic kids to attend Catholic schools, but not for other religious kids to attend other religious schools. I used to think this was statutory, but its not! Camden doesn’t do it (though, surely, when the ILEA was abolished, Camden must have had a lot of Catholic kids).


Kadin 03.04.09 at 8:02 am

How New Zealand works is: if a state school expects to regularly receive more applications for enrolment, it must have an enrolment scheme. The school is required to map out a ‘zone’, based on geography/population distribution that will include as many people as possible (there are penalties if a school makes a zone too small). The way cities in New Zealand are built means that there is inevitably a wide range of income distributions within each school’s zone, so getting into a good state school does not depend on being able to buy a house in a ‘good neighbourhood’ (for example, in Hamilton, a city of roughly 100,000, students anywhere in the city are able to attend any of the five state schools). The school is required to accept all applications for enrolment from students who live within the boundaries of the zone. All applications from students outside the zone are placed into a lottery. It generally works quite well.

Schools without an enrolment scheme are required to accept all applications.


Cian 03.04.09 at 9:41 am

Yeah, I was surprised to discover that for our local Catholic school you have to attend the local Catholic church, not just any Catholic church. Which given that there are at least two within its catchment area is seriously weird.
Actually our local CofE school probably has something similar – they actually have a hierarchy of religions. Though if your kids don’t attend the church there’s no chance of getting in, which makes it pretty academic. Its not a bad school, but its also the only school for a pretty densely populated area. And you have the depressing situation where the council are trying to minimise school runs (which are a problem), while local schools don’t actually accept local students.

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