Could an admissions lottery be fairer to disadvantaged pupils ?

Worse off families more often choose worse schools – why is that?

Professor Simon Burgess( University of Bristol) , Snr Research Economist,Ellen Greaves (Institute for Fiscal Studies) and Professor Anna Vignoles (University of Cambridge)

Pupils from disadvantaged families are more likely to choose poorly performing schools. Do these families choose local schools despite low performance? Or does the admissions system, with its emphasis on how close you live to a school, work against poorer families?

New research from CMPO, IFS and the University of Cambridge suggests families with lower socio-economic status have less access to higher performing schools than families with higher socio-economic status.

Using the Millennium Cohort Study we studied the primary school choices made on the Local Authority application forms for thousands of families in England. We found there are substantial differences in the academic quality of the local schools that are available for families in different socio-economic groups.

On average, the most socio-economically advantaged fifth of families live close to schools where average grades are significantly higher than those available to the least advantaged fifth of families. The most common way of allocating school places, giving priority to those living closest, increases this inequality. The gap in average school quality for the richest and poorest fifth of families is one third greater when considering schools feasible in terms of distance and the likelihood of admission.

What characteristics of schools influence parents’ choices? Our results show that families care about three main attributes: the academic quality of the school, the social backgrounds of its pupils, and the home-school distance.

The majority of households prefer schools with higher academic standards, which implies that “school choice” does have potential to raise standards across schools. On average, families prefer schools with fewer children living in low-income households. Almost all households have strong preferences for a school near where they live.

But preferences differ across socio-economic groups: those in the lowest group, in particular, have distinct preferences, with a preference for lower academic quality and a higher proportion of pupils from low-income backgrounds, on average. Households from each group value proximity to the same extent, however.

In summary, households from different socio-economic groups face differences in the type of schools available to them; they also have different preferences to some extent. Both factors may contribute to the unequal mix of pupils from different backgrounds in different standards of school, but which is more important?

Our research showed that in most cases pupils from poorer families were not choosing to go to worse schools; rather they were prevented from getting into better schools because of admissions criteria which typically favour families living closer to those schools. It means choice is restricted for some households.

What can be done? Popular schools cannot take everyone who applies – there has to be some way to ration places. If we want to break the link between access to high-performing schools and family income, then we need an alternative to proximity as a tie-breaker.

A lottery for over-subscribed places is one idea used around the world, but only infrequently in England. Schools could set aside a fraction of places for applicants who live beyond the “catchment” area of the school. Alternatively, schools could apply a banding system often used in the past, whereby schools’ intake of pupils is spread across the distribution of prior attainment.


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