Not Saussure

February 28, 2007

Education lotteries

Filed under: Education, Politics — notsaussure @ 11:13 pm

I wonder what to make of the news that

Brighton and Hove City council announced that schools under its authority will in some cases pick pupils randomly from within a catchment area, rather than giving preference to those living closest.

Should commend itself to people, I’d have thought, since I can’t think of a better way of guaranteeing equality of opportunity — of which I thought we were all supposed to be in favour — than giving everyone an equal chance in a raffle. A lot of people don’t quite seem to see it that way, though. Curiously, though, apparently

Brighton has argued they will have more people going to their nearest school, about 70% compared with the current figure of 40%. At the moment in theory parents can apply anywhere in Brighton and travel, so long as they can afford to.In future they will only go into the ballot in their catchment postcode area.

I’ve probably got this wrong, but I’d have thought that the medium- to long-term effect of this will just be to change house prices a bit; clearly the advantage of having a house just down the road from a desirable school will decrease, taking the price with it, but presumably, overall, the desirability of houses in particular postal districts will increase, since if you want a chance of sending your child to a particularly desirable school in Brighton, you’ll have to be in the right district to enter the lottery. You might not win, but you have to be in it to win it, as they say.

You might argue that this makes it somewhat fairer, since the premium on the price of a house that merely enters you for the lottery will presumably be less than that on the price of one that pretty much guarantees you a place for your child, but I’m not sure that in the great scheme of things it works out any fairer.

I suppose part of the problem is that people talk a great deal of cant about fairness, equality of opportunity and so forth. People don’t want that at all; they want something to deliver what they see as the best result for them and their family, and who is to blame them? I’m all in favour of high government spending on anything that’s likely to benefit me and opposed to my taxes being wasted on things that won’t. Similarly, the fairest tax regime is clearly one under which I pay as little as possible. However, I don’t try to dress this up as a point of principle, particularly.

In practice, I’m perfectly prepared to go along with a messy compromise that keeps everyone reasonably happy and (since I do have a sense of fair play, as opposed to social justice) one in which no one gets too badly left out, since I recognise that messy results that don’t leave anyone feeling too aggrieved are the best we can hope for in this life.

One point I would make to anyone proposing bringing back the 11+ as a solution to this; that may well be an excellent idea for all sorts of reasons, but one of the reasons abolishing it was initially a very popular policy with the Conservatives as well as with Labour was that the upwardly mobile and aspirational parents of the 1960s were unhappy that, no matter how well they did for themselves, if little Johnnie messed up his 11+, then it was the local Secondary Mod for him along with the local chavs (or whatever they were then called).

If you’re in favour of the 11+, then it seems to me that you’re ipso facto saying that you’re not in favour of parental choice in the matter of your child’s eduction, at least not if you’re staying in the state system, and that you trust your local education authority to make the right decisions for your children. As I say, I’m well aware of the strengths of the old grammar schools, but I fear that if they were brought back, we’d be deafened by complaints from parents whose children failed, for some unaccountable reason, to get into one.

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6 Comments »

  1. Did you read Chris Dillow’s entry on sortition? I think that basically it’s a fairly good solution to the problem. It’s far from ideal, but it’s considerably less exploitable than the alternatives. (Sort of like that famous Winston Churchill democracy quote.) Some years ago I read about how this principle was used to allocate university places in the Netherlands but I haven’t read anything on it recently and to be honest I can’t remember how it worked out for them. Might be worth looking up though.

    Comment by Dan Goodman — March 1, 2007 @ 12:09 am

  2. To me at a time when a lot is being said about trying to get people to avoid using their cars uneccessarly, particularly at bust times allowing children to go to the closest school seems to make a lot of sense. It is much more likely that children will walk to school rather than being driven there in a 4*4 if they have less distance to travel.

    Comment by Andrew — March 1, 2007 @ 2:03 pm

  3. The 11+ only ‘solves’ the problem for the % of children who pass it. For the other 80% or so who fail it the selection by house price into good and bad secondary moderns will be the same, won’t it?

    I suppose you could have more than two types of school, say 10, and split them by decile obtained in the 11+. Not sure how successful this would be though.

    Comment by Matthew — March 1, 2007 @ 3:00 pm

  4. Today’s Daily Mail (it was the only paper in the waiting room, thus adding to the unpleasantness of a visit to the dentist) has a thoughtful leader on the matter.

    The gist of the argument seemed to be that failing schools need to be improved or closed, and government needs to provide sufficient places in good schools for everyone to get their first choice.

    Now, why didn’t I think of that?

    Dan, I saw Chris Dillow’s piece to which you refer. It’s a superficially attractive idea, I think, but I don’t think it could actually work very well in practice. Ages ago, when I was at university, Mrs Thatcher made the mother of a friend of mine a life peer, as a ‘working peer’, partly because they wanted someone with good first-hand knowledge of local government for when they were discussing measures that affected local councils (she’d been a big noise in local politics in her part of the country for a long time) and partly because they needed a safe pair of hands who could get the more-or-less non-contentious amendments (many of them introduced by the government to fix problems that had become apparent in the Committee Stage in the Commons) to bills properly scrutinised and through the Lords’ committees to a time-table.

    Someone’s got to do that sort of work on bills, it seems to me, and someone like my friend’s mother was probably far better qualified than was any MP. And it’s not really the sort of thing you want to ask civil servants to do. Well, the government might, but the rest of us probably wouldn’t.

    Comment by notsaussure — March 1, 2007 @ 5:48 pm

  5. The mail is right, this is a disgraceful attempt to divert attention from the reali issue. The quality of schools is going down and parents are getting more desperate.

    Lotteris are not the solution, something much more radical is needed. We have two systems in this country for schooling. Private and Public? Which one workds – let’s follow the model.

    Comment by cityunslicker — March 1, 2007 @ 10:46 pm

  6. Not sure how well that would work in practice, though, CityUnslicker — it’s the old problem that what works for a limited number of people doesn’t necessarily scale up particularly easily.

    Yes, at present, if you’ve got the money and you and the child are OK with a boarding school, then you can pretty much guarantee finding a very good school for just about anyone, including not particularly bright and somewhat ‘challenging’ pupils.

    However, if you try to scale that up — give everyone in the country a voucher for the cost of a place at a private school — it wouldn’t work. There’s obviously not the capacity,and, while the market doubtless could sort it out over time, the amount of time it would take to get all the new schools up and running with their distictive characters (or to change the ethos of invididual state schools) represents the whole secondary careers of all the children born in a particular decade, I’d have thought, and the associated disruption isn’t going to be very good for them and won’t go down very well with their parents.

    I don’t particularly have a solution, other than to try to be in a position to have your own children educated privately if that’s what you want to do, (or if it’s necessary, even though you don’t very much want to do it); I’m just pointing out the problems with trying to fix what’s clearly an unsatisfactory state of affairs.

    Comment by notsaussure — March 1, 2007 @ 11:38 pm


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