Randomly allocating places in over-subscribed schools is the fairest option

As parents find out if their child will go to their preferred secondary school, Alastair Thomson considers what governors can do to stop lengthy appeals.

Each year schools get a hard lesson about how they are perceived when parents express preferences for where their daughter or son should be educated.

Eight years ago I was chewing my nails, wondering whether my child would get into the closest secondary to our home: an over-subscribed, all-ability, secular, single-sex school using ‘random allocation’ (aka a lottery) as an allocation criterion. My family got lucky – but getting a child into the ‘right’ school is something which leads parents to lie and cheat about their usual residence and religious observance in the hope of securing their desired place.

Since becoming a governor of this freestanding academy, I’ve wrestled, annually, with helping to shape admissions policies that are fair, transparent and compliant with the Admissions Code. This is very much a live issue in a school which regularly receives more than 500 applications for a Planned Admissions Number (PAN) of 210 for year seven entry.

Ever since the 1988 Education Reform Act introduced a system of “open enrolment”, parents in England have been free to apply to any school they choose with neither distance nor local authority boundaries a barrier. Schools can only turn applicants away if they are physically full. In theory this is an empowering manifestation of consumer choice, in practice it is an also expensive distraction and something of a misrepresentation since expression of a preference is not the same as parental choice – although local newspapers do not always see the distinction.

The downside of oversubscription is that staff are tied-up in managing lengthy appeals which disappoint more satisfy

For governors, it is gratifying to knowing that the ethos and strategy which we set for the school are attractive to prospective parents and pupils. We like to think that the clarity of our vision and expectations contributes to the school’s success both in terms of academic results and in an unusually rich co-curriculum. The downside of oversubscription though is that, each year, staff are tied-up in managing a lengthy process which disappoints more people than it satisfies. This is even before the time and expense of dozens of admissions appeals, the majority of which fail despite the efforts of a growing number of lawyers and appeals experts for hire.

Being more attractive to parents than others was never a status my school deliberately sought. It is however a consequence of policies seeking to make the school the best that it can be and a single-minded focus on helping its pupils achieve success, not only in public examinations but in all other areas too. On its own, oversubscription can be meaningless virility symbol but in truth it is also an indicator of a school’s reputation in the local community and the kind of education that parents want for their children.

The school is genuinely mixed-ability, drawing pupils equally from all five ability quintiles. Part of its distinctiveness though, comes from being the only single-sex boys’ state school in the county. This is something which is attractive to many families and means that it attracts applications from a very wide geographical area rather than a small number of primaries.

One way of managing over-subscription would be to ration access through physical proximity but the governing body rejected that option as being unfair to families unable to move within a catchment area. Instead it uses a system of random allocation to fill places across the ability bands after the usual provision for looked-after children, those with education and care plans and sibling links.

While this does lead to some children living very close to the school not gaining places, it is perhaps the least unfair option and one which cannot be ‘gamed’ by sharp-elbowed parents.

It is also right to acknowledge that oversubscription, combined with good academic results and excellent facilities can cause strains within the local educational ecology. There are always resentful whispers about cherry-picking and unfair selection despite policies which are transparent and which seek to comply with the spirit as well as the letter of the DfES Code.

This is inevitable. So long as parents can express a preference and so long as schools can develop their own ethos, some will be more attractive than others. It is worth remembering too that, across England, the huge majority of children succeed in getting into their parents’ first-choice school. This doesn’t mean the countdown to March 1st is not nail-biting and stressful – it is, not only in London but in other towns too.

Alastair Thomson is a Governor in Northamptonshire. He writes in a personal capacity

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