Tag Archives: School admissions

Using Lotteries in School Admissions

Rebecca Allen and Simon Burgess

This week about half a million students are starting their first term in secondary school. For many of their families, the process of choosing that school will have been very stressful. Is that process fair? The system of school admissions is a major topic of policy controversy, with a lot of debate highlighting the differences in access to high-performing schools.

One leading policy proposal is to use lotteries to decide who gets in to over-subscribed schools. Our paper analyses the experience so far of the only Local Authority in England to introduce this system, Brighton and Hove. Understandably, other Local Authorities have been watching the policy experiment very carefully. While the paper attracted a good deal of interest and comment, this post draws out some general lessons for other cities.

First, lotteries can work: they do equalise the chances for everyone in the lottery of getting a place in the high-performing schools. This is the great hope for the system. As long as access to schools is tied to anything that can be bought, the outcome is bound to favour wealthier families. This might be buying an expensive house near a popular school, paying for coaching in grammar school tests, or paying for music or art lessons to help the child get into specialist schools. Lotteries simply offer everyone an equal chance of access to an over-subscribed school and sever the link between access and income.

And our study shows that this worked in Brighton and Hove, within catchment areas. Two of the catchment areas each have two community schools. The lottery worked perfectly within these catchment areas to equalise chances wherever you lived, next door to the school or just within the boundary. As a consequence, the characteristics of these schools’ intakes are converging. This point was missed by some of the coverage.

However, looking across the city as a whole, covering all six catchment areas, schools did not become more similar in terms of the socio-economic characteristics of their intakes. This is chiefly because the catchment areas delineate parts of the city that are different in their degrees of deprivation. Since neighbourhood matters a lot, admissions were still largely local and across catchment areas chances of entering the different schools did not equalise.

This is not to say that nothing much happened after the reform. There were significant winners and losers in terms of the academic quality of school attended. These were predictable: under the old system, proximity to an over-subscribed school got you in; under the new system if you’re close to the school but just beyond the catchment boundary, your chance of admission is much reduced. Conversely, some families living further away from the popular school but nevertheless within the catchment area were now able to access much more highly performing schools than previously. So there has been some rebalancing of intakes in terms of access to high performing schools, despite little rebalancing in terms of the fraction of poor students in each school.

So the second broad lesson is that the design of the catchment areas is key. To a degree any Local Authority is constrained by the geography it faces – the location of schools and the clustering of deprived and affluent neighbourhoods. But there are general points that can be made. An open city-wide lottery would be globally fair: it would indeed equalise chances of access to the high-performing schools for everyone in the city. This is what we have seen within catchment areas in Brighton. But in many places a city-wide lottery would be very impractical. Apart from transport issues, it would also complicate the transition from primary to secondary school, and reduce the sense of a ‘neighbourhood’ school. We do have to acknowledge, however, that a system of neighbourhood schools almost inevitably means a segregated system.

But there are compromises between these two extremes, and these perhaps offer the best lessons for the use of lotteries to help achieve fair admissions. It is important for catchment areas to contain multiple schools, and the lottery will then act to equalise the intakes of all the schools in that area. It is important that catchment zones enclose socially mixed communities, so that all of the families in those communities will have equal chances of accessing the popular schools regardless of the location of their house. If the catchment boundaries can be set so that they cover different neighbourhood demographics, and each catchment is similar, this will yield much of the benefit of city-wide lotteries in terms of fair access.