School Lottery is a Loser.

Lord Taylor of Warwick

If Ed Balls was a student, I would fail him. His career as Schools Secretary has been stained with the SATS marking fiasco and questionable education standards. 


Recently, after a huge amount of stress to pupils, parents and teachers, SATS were abandoned overnight because the Government were unable to devise a suitable marking system. 


Accusations of dumbing down to achieve better grades, are increasing with each year of exam results.


Now, the DSCF (Department for Schools, Children and Families) announced that half of all children in England did not get a place at their first choice school this year.


Entering a new secondary school is an unsettling time for any child. A strange environment, making new friends and having different teachers are stressful changes. 


Imagine how traumatic it must be for children to have the additional pressure of being randomly separated from friends and siblings.


In February, the Guardian revealed how even families with twins face bureaucratic battles with local authorities after being sent to different schools!



The Twins and Multiple Birth Association (Tamba) estimated that at least 250 families received letters telling them their twins will be placed in separate schools.


Ed Balls has said such lotteries should only be used as a last resort and announced an inquiry into whether their use is harming children. But as a parent, and I’m sure many other parents feel the same way, an inquiry isn’t needed: separating twins is traumatic and harmful.


The Government has had 11 years to prevent this from happening. Ed Balls has personally had 2 years to make significant changes. His education as Minister, should include listening. If he stopped playing the blame game and listened to pupils, parents and teachers, Ed Balls might yet make the grade. 

11 comments for “School Lottery is a Loser.

  1. Steve
    13/03/2009 at 4:15 pm

    Well said! You would think it would be politics 101.

  2. James Schlackman
    13/03/2009 at 6:26 pm

    Lord Taylor,

    You say that the DSCF announced “that half of all children in England did not get a place at their first choice school this year.” The DCSF press release states that “83.2% of families received an offer at their first preference school”.

    I realise you speak of individual children while the press release speaks of families, but I’m not sure that can account for the difference. Is there really a huge number of families with multiple children starting secondary school this year, of which not all the children in the family received a first choice place?

    Which figure is correct?

  3. Croft
    14/03/2009 at 11:01 am

    @James Schlackman: The best figures I can find are

    Lord Taylor of Warwick: The twins/siblings issue ought to be very easy to handle – you put them into any lottery as a single ticket. Of course when you have parents with children from two different marriages with different surnames there is probably more room for confusion but still it hardly seems to need a rocket scientist to find a solution.

    While I sympathise with the goal of preventing parents ‘buying’ better schooling by moving into a catchment area it does seem positively perverse to have large numbers of parents making quite unnecessary long journeys, beyond the nearest school, due to lottery allocation. We are all suppose to be trying to cut our carbon footprint and in those terms trying whenever possible to give children schools they can walk to, or have the shortest possible car/bus journey to seems a wholly desirable aim.

  4. baronessmurphy
    14/03/2009 at 12:38 pm

    Lord Taylor
    Can you tell us how you would fairly allocate to individual children the smaller number of places in good schools than the number seeking places in them?
    If we are setting our faces against selection criteria, then there must be another way. A lottery is fair if not popular. What is your solution?

  5. Bedd Gelert
    14/03/2009 at 7:58 pm

    Lord Taylor,
    I echo Baroness Murphy’s point.
    “The Twins and Multiple Birth Association (Tamba) estimated that at least 250 families received letters telling them their twins will be placed in separate schools.”

    This is awful, but how much of this is down to pushy middle-class parents and their hideous sense of entitlement, which this article highlights.

  6. Steve
    15/03/2009 at 9:56 pm

    baronessmurphy: Life isn’t fair – get over it. Why disadvantage and disrupt everyone just to appear to be fair? That’s taking solialism a big step too far.

    If schools are poor in an area then fix them! Don’t try and hide the problem by trying to penalise those people that can do something to improve their lot – and care enough to try!

  7. baronessmurphy
    16/03/2009 at 2:14 pm

    Steve, I don’t disagree with the long term solution but fixing takes time, places are available now. Still don’t see how you deal with this except by random allocation or rapid expansion of existing good schools. Give me some practical ideas here.

  8. Croft
    16/03/2009 at 3:07 pm

    @baronessmurphy: My understanding was that until late last year rules existed to retard good schools expanding to prevent ‘bad’ schools dropping below sustainable numbers. You had to get permission from the admissions watchdog which was difficult and costly. That now seems to have been relaxed but local government still has control over non academy schools and many ways to obstruct the process.

    I put my position above about distance/enviromental based decisions. I’m not sure many object to any lottery where all other criteria have been exhausted but I think even the government has accepted that some local authorities have seen them as a first step not a final option.

  9. Steve
    16/03/2009 at 3:23 pm


    Agreed fixing does take time, and there’s too little space here to solve the problem. That doesn’t stop me trying though 🙂

    There may not be a quick fix. I just don’t like the idea of penalising everyone else in the name of fairness.


    1. It uses up useful resources to design and change an existing process people are familiar with (councils and the public). Those same people could be helping to fix the less sucessful schools.

    2. Not many are happy with the change – so what was the overall nett benefit?

    Maybe the emphasis should be less on rules and regulations in schools (thereby freeing up people and increasing morale) and more on skills sharing between schools within an area – thereby spreading expertise.

    If there are places available at good schools now – then surely those are premium spots and the schools (both source and destination) should be able to identify kids who would benefit (so long as the parents aren’t burdened with transport issues).

    This is the equivilent of a bursery in the private school sector.

    That may well be the way to do it – though the source school, destination school and the parents must agree.

    Find some good teachers and head teachers, they’re a bright bunch and I’m sure they’d love to help!

    Best wishes.


    PS: I love this blog and the way we can have these conversations – I would never have dreamed of having this conversation before.

    I hope you find it useful!

  10. Lord Taylor of Warwick
    19/03/2009 at 11:53 am

    Thank you for all your comments – I am really pleased that this has generated such lively responses.

    Firstly, James, to clarify and explain the statistics. Half of all children in some areas of England did not get a place at their first choice school this year. Of the half a million children who applied to start secondary school in England this year, 92,000 did not get their first choice.

    Steve, Bedd and Croft – you all provide some very thought provoking ideas.

    It is significant to note, Baroness Murphy, that even Ed Balls, the School’s Secretary, recently criticised Labour’s own system. He said: “I have sympathy with the view that a lottery system can feel arbitrary, random and hard to explain to children in years five and six who don’t know what’s going to happen and don’t know which children in their class they’re going to be going on to secondary school with”.

    I support the Conservative’s School Reform Plan. Detailed information can be found on the Conservative website. A summary of ideas to tackle the lottery admissions system are:

    •Provide over 220,000 new school places. That would meet the demand from every parent who lost their appeal for their first choice school in our most deprived boroughs.
    •Allow educational charities, philanthropists, livery companies, existing school federations, not for profit trusts, co operatives and groups of parents to set up new schools in the state sector and access equivalent public funding to existing state schools.
    •Ensure funding for deprivation goes direct to the pupils most in need rather than being diverted by bureaucracies.
    •Divert more resources to pupils who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, ensuring they get the earliest possible opportunity to choose the best schools and enjoy the best teaching.
    •Make it easier to establish the extended schooling (from summer schools through Saturday schooling to homework clubs and breakfast clubs) which drives up achievement, especially among the poorest.
    •Remove those obstacles in terms of centralised bureaucracy, local authority restrictions and planning rules – which prevent new schools being established.
    •Allow smaller schools and more intimate learning environments to be established to respond to parental demands.

  11. Croft
    19/03/2009 at 4:10 pm

    Lord Taylor of Warwick: I’m wary of engaging too much in party political arguments, as I’d hate peers to feel obliged to promote or defend any particular party line here to the detriment of debate.

    That said, I have no issue with non-state/council providers of education. If they can innovate and provide a better education for the same cost as state providers then it’s illogical to not support them. It does however mean accepting that some schools will ‘fail’ and have to close – which is obviously a potentially emotive issue. Creation of additional places is also expensive in and of itself, and less efficient in terms of many schools having spare places, while others create new places, due to miscalculation of place demand.

    Provisions for smaller schools in accordance to parental demands sounds all well and good but as a reverse of the economy of scale they are necessarily more expensive to run though they may be absolutely justifiable in remote areas or to cater for pupils with special needs – where we have seen a sharp decline in places -v- mainstream schools.

    I think there is merit in providing a pupil premium for schools to take disadvantaged pupils and the additional load on resources they may cause.

    I’m unconvinced that any of the above will end the over subscription of many schools in the short term though they may ameliorate them in the medium term. Either way we will probably have to have some tie breaking mechanism – a lottery or as I prefer a localism/environmental test.

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