From preference to choice: should school admissions be liberalised?

Reform held a panel session at a conference on ‘School choice, opportunity and equity’ convened by the Centre for the Study of Market Reform of Education on Thursday 28 January 2016.

The panel topic was ‘From preference to choice: should school admissions be liberalised?’ and was chaired by Senior Researcher Amy Finch. The discussion centred on the issue of equitable access to good, quality schools, and whether parental choice, regarding its potential to improve pupil outcomes, is being realised in a system where access to oversubscribed schools is largely determined by wealth or income.

The speakers were:

  • Dr Becky Allen, Director, Education Datalab
  • Dale Bassett, Co-Founder, Compass School Southwark
  • Professor Toby Salt, Chief Executive, Ormiston Academies Trust
  • Dr Elizabeth Passmore OBE, Chief Adjudicator, Office of the Schools Adjudicator

There was agreement from all speakers that there is room for improvement in the schools admission system. Dr Becky Allen started the discussion by arguing that the school admissions process, including allowing academies to act as their own admissions authorities, is creating complexity in the system to the benefit of schools not pupils. She pointed out that the early evidence on banding students when a school is oversubscribed suggests it increases rather than decreases inequality. She argued that locality is important for some parents, but that clearer information on the admissions process, particularly the likelihood of getting into schools when applying from outside the catchment area, should be explored.

Toby Salt pointed out that, although there is greater diversity in the schools system than ever before, and therefore greater theoretical ‘choice’, the admissions system is a very complex system for parents to navigate. He suggested that more control should be placed in the hands of pupils, particularly for when applying to secondary school. Policies to support pupil choice might ensure greater motivation and understanding of the impact of school on future education and employment chances.

Dale Bassett, who spoke in a personal capacity, argued that the admissions system benefits wealthy families most when oversubscription occurs, as factors such as geographical proximity and feeder schools (which are legitimate and popular forms of selecting pupils) are often biased in favour of income. He argued in favour of random allocation (lotteries) for oversubscription and floated the idea that these should be mandatory. However, he pointed out that the link between access to a good school and parental income would not be broken by reforming school admissions alone; we also need ensure that school supply is more flexible to parental need.

Consensus on the best alternative solution was not reached. While Dr Becky Allen and Dale Bassett argued that a lottery system could be a good alternative when schools are faced with oversubscription, Dr Elizabeth Passmore argued that this policy would be extremely unpopular with parents. She cited locality of the school as an issue that she receives many complaints from about in her role as Chief School Adjudicator. However, she was not able to counter the claim that these complaints disproportionally come from advantaged parents who are upset that higher mortgage prices have not afforded their child a place at a good school. Toby Salt also argued that lotteries would not work in all regions, particularly for those who live in areas with little school choice, such as in rural areas. Dr Passmore also questioned whether liberalisation was a viable solution. She did however confer that greater clarity in the existing regulation is crucial to ease parental confusion and assist the process.

The panel were in agreement that parental choice is impacted by ‘supply side’ factors as well. As with any case of supply and demand, one contributor from the floor added that there needs to be more good, accessible schools to begin with, to ensure parents have the best opportunity to send their children to high quality schools.

Although consensus was not reached, the panel session highlighted the need for the Government to take another look at the current admissions policy and work towards ensuring a fairer system for all.

28 January 2016
09.30 - 17.10