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Allocating School Places By Lottery

David Green in The Times, Public Agenda, March 2006

Labour’s education rebels claim to want good schools for everyone, but in truth they regard good schools as the problem because they create inequality – their real preoccupation. For Blairites good schools are not the problem, the issue is how to make sure no one is left behind as we improve bad schools. Blair thinks that diversity will raise standards by permitting school choice. Labour’s rebels say it will only encourage selection. Blair has watered down his plans, but there is an alternative that would allow genuine school choice and avoid selection – admission by lottery.

Labour’s equalizers are hostile both to good schools and committed parents, who are often denounced as ‘pushy parents’. Why? Because they bring about unequal outcomes and that is what Labour equalizers are against. Polly Toynbee in the Guardian recently described the attitude succinctly: “Secondary schools cannot compensate for the damage done in one of Europe’s most unequal societies: by the age of five children’s destinies are all but set by social class or parental ambition. Schools are only remedial. Real change will come only if society grows more equal in wealth, status, esteem and reward.”

But American experience from the 1980s proves her wrong. The issue there was race rather than class, but the basic problem was the same: how could policy makers ensure that popular schools did not exclude disadvantaged children? One of the earliest cities to adopt lotteries was Chicago. The system was simple. Parents applied for the school of their choice. If a school with 100 places was over-subscribed, all the names were ‘put in a hat’ and the first 100 picked out. Covert selection on ability was impossible. A similar process was adopted for publicly-funded ‘charter’ schools that began to be introduced in the 1990s. Local authorities gave a contract (or charter) to new schools and paid a fixed amount for each child. Independent studies have found that charter schools assist children from poor backgrounds and achieve higher standards in reading and maths.

Lotteries would turn the debate away from our obsession with selection to the real issue: does competition benefit everyone? Pluralism on the supply-side reflects the reality that the drive for improvement comes from producers, not consumers. We learn the best ways of meeting our needs by allowing many people to discover the best solutions through trial and error. This diversity, when combined with the cut and thrust of critical inquiry through the media, allows us to learn rapidly from both successes and failures. Monopoly creates entrenched interests that will not budge, and permits intellectual mistakes to go unchallenged. The abandonment of synthetic phonics in teaching reading is only the most recent example of an educational folly that was enthusiastically embraced by teachers who, in their hearts, knew better. School diversity allows us all to take part in a journey of discovery, permitting the growth of our knowledge in the light of experimentation, rather than the suppression of sense by political dictate.

A system of lotteries would reveal that concern for social solidarity is compatible with school choice. School reform should not let Labour’s equalizers declare war on committed parents. Instead it should focus on the least fortunate children and make sure that the unavoidable disadvantages of birth are not continued throughout life.

David Green is Director of Civitas

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