Ballots to help decide who gets places at oversubscribed schools would be more popular with the public than has so far been suggested, according to the latest research published today (Friday) by the Sutton Trust.

The Trust, which aims to improve social mobility through education, says school authorities are right to consider them alongside other criteria when developing rules for school admissions.

An Ipsos MORI public opinion poll of nearly 2000 adults reveals that, when put into context, ballots are thought by a third of people to be a fairer ‘tiebreaker’ than other methods for deciding places at over-subscribed schools. An international review meanwhile shows that ballots have been used extensively overseas.

Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the Sutton Trust which commissioned the research, said: “No child’s educational future should be left purely to chance. But what this research suggests is that ballots — alongside other criteria and guarantees – have a role to play in deciding which pupils secure places at oversubscribed schools.”

“This review confirms the extensive use of ballots in school and university selection abroad. In other countries the assumption is that ballots are a fair and transparent way of deciding which children win school places when schools are over-subscribed.
“The public survey suggests that when explained clearly and put into context, a high proportion of the UK public think that using random allocation is the fairer ‘tiebreaker’ when deciding school places. This is despite the fact that ballots have hardly been used at all in the UK.”

The Ipsos MORI survey, carried out last March, found:

  • When given the specific scenario of an over-subscribed faith school, more people (36%) think that a ballot is the fairer way of deciding which pupils get a place than those who think the decision should rest on judgements showing which families are most committed to the Christian faith (20%).
  • When given the specific scenario of an over-subscribed comprehensive school, nearly as many people (32%) think that a ballot is the fairer way of deciding which pupils get a place as those who think it is fairer to decide on how near families live to the school (35%).
  • Among parents from the higher social classes, 45 per cent of respondents think that a ballot is the fairer way of deciding which pupils get a place at an oversubscribed comprehensive school.

However, when asked whether any one of eight listed methods of allocating school places were either fair or unfair, the majority of respondents felt unable to make this judgement for all but one of the cases. This uncertainty was particularly prevalent among those from less prosperous backgrounds.

Respondents who did make a judgement believed that the fairest way of allocating school places was by giving priority to children who live closest to the school (52% viewing this as fair, compared with 9% unfair).

Selecting children on the basis of a certain religion or faith emerged as the way of allocating school places most frequently identified as unfair, with 40% of respondents saying it was unfair compared with 8% who said it was fair.

The next method most frequently identified as unfair was selecting places by ballot, with 28% of respondents believing it to be unfair and 9% believing it to be fair — although a significant 63% were unable to make up their minds.

The international review by RAND Europe found:

  • Ballots have been deployed extensively across the world, in both school and university admissions. These include schools across the US, Sweden and New Zealand, and universities in Sweden and Holland.
  • Ballots are not used in isolation. They are only deployed in conjunction with other criteria or constraints when determining which pupils or students secure places.
  • Ballots are part of wider school reforms to introduce more choice for prospective pupils when applying for places at school, dealing with the problem of oversubscribed schools.
  • Outside the UK at least, public concern has focused on which types of pupils enter the ballots – not whether they are fair or unfair.

Sir Peter added: “One concern is that many respondents to our survey, particularly those from poor backgrounds, did not feel able to make judgements as to what are and are not fair ways of allocating pupils to over-subscribed schools.

 “These parents are less likely to be able to successfully negotiate the admissions process and to make the best school choices for their children. It is no coincidence, perhaps, that those schools with the most complicated methods of allocating places – which tend to be foundation and voluntary aided schools – are generally more socially exclusive.”

The Trust commissioned Rand Europe to review the use of ballots overseas in school and university admissions. In parallel it commissioned Ipsos MORI to gauge public views in the UK on what are the fairest ways of allocating places at over-subscribed schools. In late March interviews were undertaken with a representative cross-section of 1,928 adults.

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