The Big School Lottery – A Comprehensive Analysis

Over the last couple of weeks, BBC Two has been broadcasting ‘The Big School Lottery’ – all about primary children applying to secondary school, hoping to get in to the school of their choice. It’s a well made series, focusing on the efforts of a group of kids and their parents. There are the inevitable pushy parents, who give their kids tuition at home to make sure their kid passes the grammar test, there is a parent who bases her predictions on her son’s future on a swinging necklace (if she wants to, fine!), and there is the mother who’s worried her son will end up at a school in the ‘wrong’ postcode.

All in all, every family has a challenge, and the programme brings home how seriously many people take the choice of secondary school for their child. It reminds me of my application – I desperately wanted to get into ADT College – a City Technology College specialising in IT and DT, and therefore packed full of cool computers. My second choice was Elliott School, a bog standard comprehensive. ADT was allowed to operate an admissions test and interview in order to band children into five groups and therefore have a balanced intake, and to ensure that the child had an interest in the specialist subject areas. Seeing the kids in the programme practice for their tests reminded me of my test in non-verbal reasoning for ADT (though looking back, quite why I practiced for the test when entry wasn’t dependent on a good performance I don’t know. I presume it’s based on an implicit built-in notion that tests are for performing well in). It’s quite a stressful experience taking an entry test at age 11, and it really made me angrier at the grammar school system. All the parents in the programme seem to hate it too, saying, for example, that it’s not fair that they can afford extra tuition when not everyone else can. But ultimately, they wanted the place at the school, so they were doing everything you could. We hear other stories of parents lying about their address to ensure their son or daughter falls into the catchment area for a particular school, or hoping that having a cousin at a school will boost their application, and it’s infuriating. Firstly, as the woman in charge of the admissions system points out, these parents take away the place from the kid who’s number one on the waiting list, but also because you shouldn’t have to do these things to secure a good education for your kids.

The point that really struck me though, was the sense of stress that the kids quite visibly had. Such feelings can’t be helped by parents who try and sneak a peek at the admissions letter before their daughter comes home in order to find out which school she has got into, or who snatch the letter out of their kid’s hands because their kid is taking too long to read it. Ultimately, the kid should be allowed to open the letter in precisely the circumstances they demand. It’s their future after all. When it comes to the first day at school, the father who had been trying to sneak a peek at his daughter’s letter decides to ‘stalk’ her in his car. I feel slightly worried about his behaviour. He represents the classic ‘pushy parent’. Why can’t his daughter even be left to make the journey to school on her own, especially if she asks to be (which she had).

But what can be done to fix this? My solution is simple. The problem is that some schools are simply set up to be better than others, which means that a lot of the bright kids are diverted off into these schools, leaving the other schools to take the other, less bright kids. These schools are either selective, and therefore able to take kids who are more likely to succeed, or, like faith schools, they simply are more likely to attract the children of middle-class parents who have the right mindset to help their child succeed. This becomes a self-perpetuating cycle which ensures that some schools are successful and other are not, and therefore puts pressure on the admissions system. So to solve this problem, I think we have to scrap completely the grammar schools left in existence. But not just them, the faith schools too. And the academies. And the trust schools. And whatever other type of school we can find apart from community schools (ie comprehensives). I’m sure some people will see this as an attempt to perpetuate failure throughout the system based on the assumption that ‘state schools’ are by definition failures (as David Cameron seems to think), but in reality, this is wrong because there are many good state schools and because it’s simply spreading the smart kids amongst the lower performers. This doesn’t necessarily rule out setting kids, but it would simply balance out the school system and allow all children to attend the school which is nearest to them, rather than going through a stressful, flawed and complicated admissions process.

The only problem with this is that currently areas are inevitably varied in terms of class domination – for example, middle-class areas can be clearly identified, quite simply because of the catchment area effect. Trying to balance this out would be a lot harder, but it’s possible that if there was no longer such pressure to get into a certain school, things might slowly even out.

Either way, the current system really is far too stressful for kids and their parents, and if anyone wants to be convinced of this, they should visit iPlayer and watch The Big School Lottery for themselves. School is a complicated enough experience itself, without the surrounding pressure of a highly competitive admissions process.

  • It was a series that I think only made good viewing for the educationalist die-hard, but I thought it captured some really sad images. In the first episode, when the young boy in the towerblock was pointing down in the different directions, saying which gangs ruled each area was a powerful image, when you know in that office, people were deciding whether he would exposed to these gangs or whether he would be lucky enough to get a route out of it.

    I find it too easy though to argue against the system; comprehensivisation is the way. It gets rid of that bureaucracy everybody seems to hate, it is far simpler to organise and although obviously with it being based on catchment areas it is never going to be completely tamperproof, a bit of gerrymandering can lead to some much needed social re-engineering. There are not many areas of the country where affluence is surrounded only by affluence; in the inner cities, the extremes of rich and poor often co-exist in the different worlds whilst touching shoulders. Get a catchment area thrown between them like a big egalitarian venn diagram: circle a = rich, circle b = poor, intersection = the school.

    Ah.