Selective education: an international perspective

18 October 2016

Selective education has come under the radar recently after Theresa May’s controversial announcement of plans to allow new grammar schools to open. In addition to arguing they would enable social mobility, the Government is using the popularity of grammar schools among parents as their justification. The Reformer has written about how both grammar schools and the widely-used system of catchment areas hinder social mobility.

In England, there have been some individual cases of schools moving away from catchment areas in favour of lotteries or fair banding. A lottery system is where places are allocated at random to those that have applied if the school is over-subscribed. A fair banding system is where the applicant takes an admissions test to determine which ability band they are eligible for. The school then allocates an equal percentage of places to each ability band, ensuring a mix of abilities.

In 2007, Brighton and Hove introduced a lottery admissions system for all its schools but local-authority-wide lottery policies have since been banned by the Coalition Government. However, where catchment areas prevail, we continue to see extreme measures being taken by some parents to get their children into good schools. Is this the most effective way to admit pupils to schools? This blog considers systems in other countries and how selective they are.

Sweden: personal choice

The Swedish education system has received a lot of media interest in light of the English academies programme, which it was the inspiration for. Sweden does not have selection by ability for its compulsory education, the grundskola (ages 7 to 16 years). It has a voucher system where pupils can apply to any school, whether it is run by the municipal authority (like a local authority school) or independently run (like academies). The school will then receive state funding for that pupil.

Municipal schools tend to allocate over-subscribed places on the basis of distance from the school whereas independent schools (friskola) tend to allocate places on a first-come, first-served basis. Once all the friskola places are filled, the school accepts no more applicants.

Similar to the problems with distance-based oversubscription criteria, first-come-first-served policies still may not be as egalitarian as they first appear. The risk is that certain families (such as where the parents have undergone university training) are more informed than others and therefore better able to take advantage of this system. For example, through researching which are the best schools and applying as soon as applications for the previous year have closed. It is possible that migrant families moving into the area would apply too late. This is what happened in one friskola in south-east Sweden which had originally been set up for immigrant families poorly served by the local municipal school. As its reputation grew, families in areas with better schools began applying early. Lack of positive discrimination meant the immigrant families were increasingly rejected from the school and so were just as disadvantaged as before.

Germany: the three-tier system

The German system has moved in the direction of becoming less selective after the shock of its 2000 PISA results (an international survey of education systems). The results showed Germany had the highest correlation between family socio-economic status and student achievement. It also had reading and literacy levels well below the OECD average. By 2010, it had seen improvement in both performance and educational equality in PISA. This could largely be a consequence of structural changes which was one of the most significant changes in this period but other reforms such as greater central control, more support for migrants and greater monitoring and focus on early education were also likely to have played a part.

The traditional German system has three tiers and a pupil’s teacher recommends which tier the pupil should go into when they leave Grundschule at the age of around 10 years. The idea is to sort pupils by ability and interests but in reality socio-economic status plays a key role. A German government official has described it as “the least permeable of all school systems (despite being free of charge) in respect to social preconditions.”

Germany has a federal system so the education systems vary from one Bundersländ to another. The lowest tier of secondary education, the Realschule, has declined in recent years and disappeared completely in some states. Some Bundersländer have introduced new comprehensive schools, Gesamtschulen, which run alongside the selective system. These tend to have been introduced by the Social Democaratic Party whereas there has been more support for the traditional system in the more conservative south. Some states have introduced schools such as Oberschulen which combine the bottom two tiers (Hauptschule and Realschule). It would be interesting to examine whether there is a lesser correlation between family socio-economic status and student achievement in the areas that have been implementing these reforms, but no research has yet investigated this.

The United States: lotteries

The United States also has a federal education system and some states have introduced charter schools (a type of independent, state-funded school). Admissions policy varies from state to state but most have a lottery system in varying degrees of purity. For example, in the District of Columbia, charter schools must be open to everyone. If the school is oversubscribed, places are mostly allocated through a random lottery, although some applicants are given preference, such as children of the founders or employees.

In Colorado, charter schools must be open to every child in the state but they will only get permission to open if the majority of the proposed pupils are in the local area. Charter schools are permitted to admit pupils on a first-come, first-served basis.

The idea of an admissions lottery is to prevent selection but some argue that even this system excludes those who are unaware of the opportunities available to them and therefore do not apply. This can be a particular barrier where information is only published in English, limiting uptake from Hispanic communities. Some also criticise certain charter schools for being covertly selective, through their location or the demands they place on parents. However, it seems these problems could be avoided through greater regulation requiring schools to ensure that information is readily available and that they are not undertaking covert methods of selection.


So what can we learn about admissions from these international examples? The German example provides a strong deterrent against moving towards a system with greater selection by ability as the current grammar school plans propose to do. The evidence suggests significant socio-economic segregation under this model. The biggest problem with the first-come, first-served system and the lottery system, seems to be ensuring that people are aware of their options and preventing covert selection.

There appears to be little appetite within government to move towards a less selective school system in England anytime soon, but reform of the current system is clearly necessary, both in terms of catchment areas and regulation. We need systems in place to prevent schools from engaging in questionable practices, such as covert selection, rather than relying on individuals (such as parents and other schools) to bring the case to the Office of the Schools Adjudicator.

Elaine Fischer, Research Assistant, Reform



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