The Big Question: Why do so many parents fail to get children into their chosen schools?

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The Independent Online

Why are we asking this now?

On Monday this week – National Offer Day – an estimated 560,000 children found out whether they were lucky and had made their first preference secondary school or whether they were unlucky and would have to attend a school this September that they would rather not.

Last year, 82 per cent got into their first-choice school and 94 per cent were enrolled in one of their top-three preferences – but the percentages are much lower in parts of the capital. In some areas one in five children are failing to get into their first-choice schools. Moreover, this year the competition for places has become more intense because the recession is forcing more parents to consider state rather than private schooling for their offspring. Early indications are that more than one-third of local authorities have seen increases in applications for state-school places, particularly at schools that are over-subscribed anyway.

Is the system fair?

Many say that it isn't. For a start, there is no single system. Schools use different methods to choose which children to take. That is why the Government introduced an admissions code in 2007 to outlaw selection through the back door, by asking parents questions about their work or children questions about their hobbies, which enabled middle-class families to dominate the best comprehensive.

Does the admissions code actually work?

A report from the London School of Economics this week suggests that it is being flouted. The researchers discovered that some schools were still asking for personal information about parents' marital status, occupation and educational background. It also found that a significant minority of non-selective schools – five per cent – were selecting pupils on the basis of aptitude for a particular subject.

What can be done to make it fairer?

According to the LSE report, faith schools and academies should be stripped of their power to choose pupils. Instead the job of allocating places should go to an independent body. Anne West, director of the education research group at the LSE and lead author of the study, said this could be the local authority, which already controls admissions for community schools, or a religious body such as the diocesan authority.

What is the Government planning to do?

After publication of the LSE report, Sarah McCarthy-Fry, the Schools minister, said that admissions authorities had to ensure that their arrangements were not unnecessarily complex or that schools had too much discretionary power. Earlier in the week, in advance of families being told the outcome of their school applications, the Schools Secretary Ed Balls admitted that the system was not perfect but said it was fairer than it had ever been. The LSE research, however, found that the sheer complexity of admissions procedures discriminated against certain groups of parents. More than one-fifth of voluntary-aided schools have at least four admissions criteria relating to religion and some have as many as 11. The report also found that the proportion of secondary schools selecting pupils by aptitude had risen from 3 to 5 per cent between 2001 and 2008. Earlier Mr Balls announced an inquiry into the use of lotteries – pulling names out of a hat – to allocate school places.

Why did Mr Balls announce this inquiry?

The controversial lottery system has been used by about 25 local authorities, which introduced it as a way of preventing well-heeled parents from playing the system by buying or renting homes close to the best schools. The most widely reported lottery was that introduced by Brighton and Hove in 2007 as a way of allocating places to popular secondary schools. The authority maintains that the system has been a success and has only been used in one area where the catchment of two schools overlapped. Mr Balls was responding to concern from parents that the lottery wasn't fair – in some cases they lived right next to the school they favoured but their child hadn't got in because their name hadn't been pulled out of the hat. Mr Balls has asked the new chief schools adjudicator, Ian Craig, to investigate whether the lottery system is being abused and used too freely. If it is found to have a harmful or unfair effect, it will be banned, he said. According to the Schools Secretary, a lottery system can feel arbitrary, random and hard to explain to nine and 10-year-olds who are worried about the uncertainty. He said he would be very concerned if ballots were being used other than as a last resort. "If there's no other differentiator, then in the end a lottery is the only way to do it," he said. "But that is absolutely the last resort and you'd expect it to happen on rare occasions, not every year, not for every school, and only in a handful of cases."

Does this mean that lotteries will die a death?

Maybe. Mr Balls has given a pretty good indication he doesn't like them. But they have a reasonable intellectual pedigree. Both the Social Market Foundation and Policy Exchange – think-tanks from the left and right of centre respectively – have argued for allocation by ballot. The idea is that parents, as they do now, would choose a school, but when demand exceeded availability, places would be settled by the drawing of lots. Parents would no longer be able to stack the odds in their favour by moving house and attending church services. All would have equal chances, including parents who are not members of the chattering classes.

So why are ministers opposed to lotteries?

Parents who lose out in a lottery scream very loud. They talk to the newspapers – and they may well vote against the Government. Ministers run scared of headlines that shout "Schools admissions turned into a lottery" and Mr Balls is no exception. It is pretty easy politically for Mr Balls to have an investigation into this issue and to clamp down on it. At least he won't run the risk of antagonising well-heeled mums and dads who move heaven and earth to get their children into the schools they think are the best.

In which areas of the country are parents' preferences most often ignored?

Mums and dads in the leafy borough of Richmond upon Thames were disappointed more than elsewhere. There, 38 per cent were denied their first-choice school, more than last year. The council attributed the fall to a rise in applications. In the East End authority of Tower Hamlets, 27.9 per cent failed to get their first-choice school. But in cities outside London, parents fared better. The figures mirrored last year's, except in Brighton and Hove, which introduced a lottery system to allocate over-subscribed places. This year, it has had a 3.5 per cent increase in the number of children being awarded their first choice, bringing the proportion of satisfied first-choice parents up to almost 88 per cent. At the same time more than 5 per cent of children in Brighton and Hove have been allocated a place that did not feature in any of their choices.

Is it possible to have an equitable school admissions system?

Yes...

*Strip faith schools and academies of the power to choose pupils – give the power to an independent body

*Lotteries would give everyone a fair chance. Entry would not depend on living in the area or going to church

*Simplify the system: this week's LSE report found that some schools have 11 admissions criteria

No...

*Parental "choice" will never create a fair system because some people will always have more money or more knowledge to get what they want

*Ministers cannot afford to antagonise those who do well out of the system – they will go to the media

*The system will never be fair while there are still low-performing schools

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