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School postcode lottery: how to improve the odds for poorer children

For many children born in Britain today, the postcode they grow up in will influence the kind of life they can look forward to. The former deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, has condemned this “postcode inequality” and launched a commission led by the Social Market Foundation to tackle it.

In schools, the postcode lottery is clear, explicit and legal, born out of approved, official schools policy for decades. It is no metaphor and is based directly on postcodes.

The School Admissions Code endorses this lottery, setting out the criteria for over-subscribed schools to pick students from their pools of applicants.

The most common criteria used by schools is the proximity rule: those who live nearest get in. In practical terms, this is often defined by postcodes, as estate agents are happy to make clear when selling houses. The outcome is straightforward: if you live in this postcode, you can get into this effective school; if you live in that postcode you have to go to that less effective school.

This matters a great deal as research on primary schools by Ellen Greaves, Anna Vignoles, Deb Wilson and I have shown. The proximity criterion raises inequality in access to highly effective schools by about a third. That is, the gap in accessible school quality between richest and poorest households is a third higher when we take account of this entry criterion.

In our research, we identified the highest ranked school within a reasonable commute of each family in our data, drilling down to different socio-economic groups. In the graph below, the blue line shows for each group the quality of the best school that is near enough to travel to, while the orange line shows the best school that would be actually available to each family based on where they live. The y axis is a measure of the schools’ performance in the national Keystage 2 tests.

It’s clear that about 80% of the population, live reasonably near to at least one good school. But when the proximity criteria is imposed, the picture changes dramatically, illustrating its impact on the greater inequality in school access. We have estimated that inequality rises by about a third as a result of the proximity rule.

Even in the context of primary schools, we found that almost 20% of parents were blocked from their preferred school by where they lived. That is: they lived within a reasonable commute of a school that we estimate they would have preferred, but could not get in because they did not live close enough.

Weighing up the costs

The mechanism is well-known and clear: houses that are close to popular schools command a premium, and this acts to ration the families who can live there on the basis of income.

Of course, there are benefits to having a local community around a school and we may not want to abandon the proximity criteria entirely. It can generate a sense of neighbourhood – children can play together, study together and form friendships.

The mayor of Boston, Massachusetts, has clearly explained the downside of having more fragmented school catchment areas:

Pick any street. A dozen children probably attend a dozen different schools. Parents might not know each other; children might not play together. They can’t carpool, or study for the same tests.

But we should try to balance these costs with the inequality consequences of the proximity rule.

Changing the parameters

It’s clear that tackling educational inequality and social immobility are enormous and complex tasks. And there are substantial inequalities in school effectiveness between areas as well as within.

Nevertheless, we can make a start. Reducing the dependence of our school system on postcodes would be one way to lessen the impact of where you live on your chances in life. And while we now work in a devolved system of schools – many of which, such as academies and free schools, operate their own admissions systems – all schools have to abide by the admissions code.

It would be relatively straightforward to change the code to require each school to reserve a fraction of its places for pupils beyond the catchment area, that is, regardless of where they live.

We can debate what that fraction should be. A cautious choice favouring incremental change would be 10%, or even higher if we want a more ambitious pace of change. We need to do more research to figure out the details and to understand the best value for that fraction, but given the trade-offs involved, it won’t be zero.

This change would have a substantial effect, starting to reduce postcode inequalities in education.

Some opponents may argue that this isn’t the right away to fix the problem, and that we should just work to make all schools more effective. And indeed we should. But as my colleagues and I have argued before, we should not wait for such a nirvana to arrive. We have to act now, and changing the proximity criteria is a good place to start.

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