Researchers ‘prove’ Brighton school-lottery has failed

School place lottery ‘did not improve access for poor’

A controversial lottery system for secondary school places has failed in one of its key aims – to give poorer children equal access to top schools, academics say.

(according to a BBC news item today

A paper, “The early impact of Brighton and Hove’s school admission reforms” from CMPO Bristol, is being publicised as showing that the lottery has failed in its aim of reducing social segregation. You can read the full version of this paper at

The lottery is innocent! As researchers around the world have found, give parents the choice, and some (mostly middle-class) will eagerly seek out the ‘best’ schools. The others, the poor, the huddled masses will prefer their local schools (or more likely, be pestered by their kids to go to the local school with their mates.

It is ‘choice’ not lottery that does this. Lots more about this in my book, Lotteries for Education!

3 Responses

  1. I’ve now had a chance to read the paper, and I believe the story is not what the headlines say:

    The authors chose to highlight the failure to reduce social segregation, and the fact that a lottery was used:

    Thus we see in the Abstract “The new system incorporated a lottery for oversubscribed places and new catchment areas”
    “We see no significant change in student sorting: if anything, the point estimates suggest a rise in socio‐economic segregation.

    But reading the detail of the paper shows another story:

    On p12 “In summary, this section has shown a degree of homogenisation of FSM [free school meals] shares in Brighton and Hove’s schools post reform as we might expect.

    P15 “Pre‐reform, students in the top quartile of the KS2 distribution attended schools which were an average of over a third of a standard deviation better than other students. The reforms reduced this gap to quarter and then a sixth of a standard deviation in the first and second post reform years respectively.”

    On p 16 “Under some conditions we would expect to see some homogenisation of intakes within the dual catchment areas using lotteries. This is clearly reflected in the data for one of these areas”

    In other words the lottery DID work to spread opportunity more evenly.

    Caveat: as the authors point out ,p16 ” the re‐drawing of catchment areas in the city has considerably complicated the patterns of winners and losers”., which seems to have limited the equalising effects of the lottery.

    The killer punch (to lotteries as a means of delivering more equality) is delivered on p16:
    “Summarising the regression results, Table 5 [it is actually a graph]shows there is little significant evidence that the policy changed the allocation of students by socioeconomic characteristics, though all the point estimates suggest that if anything the policy tended to increase socioeconomic segregation and allocate poor children to lower performing schools in Brighton and Hove.”

    Well I’ve looked at the graph, and apart from one outlier school, the graph, which forms the basis for this negative conclusion shows the opposite: There is clear convergence between the schools in one graph 5a.

    My reading of this paper is that ‘the reforms’ taken as a whole have had some of the intended levelling consequences, but that the particular form of re-drawing catchment areas may well have reduced this effect. To suggest no levelling, or even some evidence of deepening segregation, caused by a lottery is at odds with the facts presented in the paper.


  2. The Press Release from Bristol University gives a much more balanced view:
    (from )

    Catchment areas undermine hopes for Brighton lottery

    Press release issued 3 September 2010

    A study by academics from the Institute of Education, London and the University of Bristol finds Brighton and Hove’s controversial school admissions lottery system has failed in one of its key aims – to give deprived children equal access to better performing schools. The system has resulted in significant winners and losers – but has not markedly reduced social segregation.
    The Brighton & Hove lottery system, introduced in 2007, was an attempt to tackle concerns about social segregation in education. By abandoning proximity as a tie-breaker in school admissions, so-called “selection by mortgage” would, in theory, come to an end, and opportunities for poorer children would be enhanced.

    A paper presented at the British Educational Research Association today (Friday) shows that the two-year-old reform does not give equal chances to all pupils because catchment areas are still the main determinants of access to particular schools.

    Under the system used by the local authority, six distinct catchment areas were drawn up. Instead of giving preference to children living closest to a school, allocations within catchments were random. Parents were free to apply to schools outside their catchment area, but if the school was already oversubscribed they were not entered into the lottery.

    The new catchment areas are drawn in such a way that families in the poorest neighbourhoods still have little chance of getting into the most popular schools in the city centre.

    “The main lesson of our analysis is that the introduction of a lottery on its own is not enough to equalise access to the high-performing popular schools,” say Rebecca Allen of the Institute of Education, London, and Simon Burgess and Leigh McKenna of the Centre for Market and Public Organisation (CMPO), University of Bristol. “The drawing of the catchment area boundaries is central to the outcome of the reform.”

    Although Allen, Burgess and McKenna found that, if anything, socio-economic segregation increased slightly, “we do see a significant change in the relationship between the poverty of a student’s neighbourhood and the academic quality of the school attended by that student.” In particular, some students from wealthier neighbourhoods were now attending less academically successful secondaries than they might have expected to previously. “These are the primary group losing out from the reform, balanced by a more diffuse group of winners who gained access to the higher-performing schools.”

    “It will be several more years before the long-run impact of the school admissions reforms in Brighton and Hove become apparent because we do expect families to relocate and house prices to adjust in response to the re-drawing of the catchment boundaries,” the authors say.

    “Nevertheless, it seems unlikely that the reforms are likely to substantially lower social segregation across schools even in the long run in this city where differences in the quality of housing stock across areas are deeply entrenched and the boundaries of the new catchment areas mean that families living in the most deprived neighbourhoods have little chance of accessing the most popular schools in the centre of the city.”

    The main lesson of our analysis is that the introduction of a lottery on its own is not enough to equalise access to the high-performing popular schools.

    Rebecca Allen of the Institute of Education, London, and Simon Burgess and Leigh McKenna of the Centre for Market and Public Organisation (CMPO), University of Bristol

    —(sorry for posting so much material, but these news stories can develop legs!)


  3. The point that needs to be stressed here, I think, is that deciding to use a lottery is only one of a number of decisions that must be made in order to allocate another good. Deciding who gets into the lottery (which the catchment areas help determine) is at least as important. If you correctly decide to use a lottery, but screw up or sabotage some of the other decisions, then the whole allocation might be woefully unjust. (The point is interestingly developed in Douglas Rae’s book EQUALITIES.)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: