Brighton and Hove's controversial random selection system for allocating school places is to be reviewed more than six years after it was introduced.
The news comes as the council announced it has successfully bid for more than £24million from the Government for more new secondary school places in 2015-16 and 2016-17. Katy Rice reports.
Next week a group of Brighton and Hove councillors will meet to discuss the contentious issue of school places.
The cross-party working group will be looking at current issues and deciding how wide-ranging a review should be.
The news of the review comes as it emerged the council has secured £12 million of government money to provide more places for the 2015-16 academic year and another £12.6 million for 2016-17. This is a significant increase on the £3.9million allocated for 2014-15 and comes after Education Secretary Michael Gove announced in December that not only was he increasing the amount of money for more school places across the country, he was also allocating amounts for the next three years so local authorities could plan for the future more effectively.
Brighton and Hove needs to find another 1,500 secondary school places in the next eight to 10 years, the equivalent of another large secondary school, and so far it has not yet been decided whether the places will be created in new schools or in extensions of existing schools. The council states it is “working closely” with the city's existing 10 secondary schools to work out how it will be done.
This week the council announced that 82% of children starting secondary school in Brighton and Hove in September will go to their first choice school. A council spokesman said: “In five of our six catchment areas and for more than 99% of pupils, the catchment area system has done its job this year.”
But 22 pupils were not accepted at a school in their catchment area and on Monday the council held a meeting about the issue, when it was decided the pupils will go to Varndean College or Dorothy Stringer School, which were among the top three choices of all those families.
Now, more than six years since the city became the first authority in the country to introduce the controversial random allocation system, dubbed a “lottery” system, the council concedes that changes are needed.
Pinaki Ghoshal, the council's director of children's services, told The Argus yesterday (Wednesday) that since the catchment areas were agreed in 2007, there have been “demographic changes” in the city with rising numbers of primary age children, and the system was to be reviewed.
Councillor Sue Shanks, chair of the council's children and young people committee, said: “It's time to consider whether the current system is the best way of dealing with these pressures in future. At present, there are enough secondary places city-wide for the numbers of students requiring them, but we are acutely aware that secondary pupil numbers will be going up significantly in the next few years. So our key priority is creating the new secondary school places needed for the coming years.”
Exactly what the admissions system review will cover will not be decided until the working party meets next week, so it is not yet known whether the current system is to be replaced or amended.
What is known, however, is that parents and governing bodies will have a say in the nature and scope of the consultation and that any changes to schools admissions procedures have to be agreed 18 months in advance, according to government rules.
The earliest any changes could be put in place would be for the 2016-17 academic year intake, which means any consultation for that must take place between November 1 this year and March 1 next year, with any proposed changes to the admissions procedure then considered by the full council.
The Argus yesterday contacted all 10 secondary schools in Brighton and Hove for their response to a review of the admissions system and had heard from four at the time of going to press. Dylan Davies, headteacher of Brighton Aldridge Community Academy (BACA) in Falmer, welcomed the review.
Andrew Stephenson, business manager at Varndean School in Balfour Road, Brighton, said: “The school is happy to take part in regular reviews of admissions arrangements to respond to demographic changes and the needs of families.”
Hayden Stride, headteacher at Longhill High School in Falmer Road, said he was unable to comment, and so was Dorothy Stringer, head teacher Richard Bradford, as he was tied up with interviews.
The current “lottery” system was itself introduced in 2008 after a review of the existing system.
As councillor Shanks explained: “The system of catchment areas supported by random allocation was introduced for our September 2008 secondary intake following a lengthy and far-reaching review process, after home-to-school distance measurement had been found to leave large areas of the city without access to a local school.
“It was seen as the fairest way to deal with the unique geographical challenges of Brighton and Hove. It also meant parents could have a high level of confidence that if they expressed a preference for it they would get a place in one of the catchment area schools.”
She added: “I believe that overall the system has worked well so far, and that it has been more fair to more people than the previous system based on home-to-school distance.”
Back in 2006, the council provoked national and local debate when it proposed to introduce the country's first random selection system after the government published a new school admissions code.
Population growth left the city short of secondary school places, with the most popular schools oversubscribed while the least popular had spare places. The situation was exacerbated by the closure of East Brighton College of Media Arts (COMART) in Whitehawk in 2005, which meant that secondary schools were not spread out equally across the city.
The radical new system was introduced for the September 2008 intake and combined rigid catchment areas with a computer lottery in an attempt to address the issue of social segregation in schools.
It divided the city, with parents both for and against the proposal demonstrating outside Brighton Town Hall when the city council's children, families and schools committee was due to approve or reject the plans.
The catchment areas provoked anger amongst some parents worried they would lose priority for high performing schools in their catchment areas.
Some feared their children would be placed at schools much further from their homes.
While opponents also feared the council had got its numbers wrong and the catchment areas would not work, Labour councillor Pat Hawkes told The Argus in 2007: “The new system is fairer for the majority of people in the city.”
By March 2008, the council declared the lottery schools admission system a “soaring success” and that it had achieved its targets of getting more pupils into a local school, with a total of 728 children having their places decided by the lottery, mostly to rule on who won places at Dorothy Stringer School in Loder Road, Brighton, and Blatchington Mill School in Nevill Avenue, Brighton. However, the number of pupils getting places at their first preference school fell from 1,871 in 2007 to 1,843, a drop from 83.7% to 78.2%.
Since 2007, there have been some changes to catchments areas, including in 2008 to Patcham High School in Ladies Mile Road, Patcham.
In 2010, a report by the Institute of Education and the Universities of London and Bristol found that lotteries alone did not give poor children a higher chance of securing a place at a top school.
And last year a report by Lancaster University into inequality in Brighton and Hove claimed that attempts to address inequalities in education through a schools lottery system had been “largely unsuccessful”.