Access and equity in the school’s marketplace
: the case for random allocation in secondary school admissions

  • James D Richardson

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Social Science (DSocSci)


How much power should the state have in determining where pupils go to school? In the last thirty years, successive governments have answered this question with policies that have emphasised parental choice, creating a ‘quasi market’ of schools and sidelined the state’s role in school admissions. The complexity of balancing individual preference with collective responsibility for equal opportunity in school admissions is explored in this paper through the case study of Gloucestershire. The allocation procedures and patterns of distribution in the analysis of 6554 pupils in 39 secondary schools across the county suggests a systematic bias against the poorest pupils gaining access to the most desirable and highest performing schools.
The study argues that any reform of school admission procedures must be judged against a background framework, underpinned by three principles of justice, which can balance the competing claims of freedom, autonomy and equality. Using the framework as the foundation for policy reform, the logic of using random allocation in school admissions is outlined, and ultimately tested in four different hypothetical simulations, allocating pupils to selective and non-selective schools dependent upon different admissions criteria. In selective schools, the types of pupils admitted in random lotteries is sensitive to the cut-off scores employed, but all simulations show that random allocation could double the number of disadvantaged pupils admitted. Similar patterns are found in non-selective schools. Replacing the geographical proximity rule with 10% random allocation can increase the percentage of disadvantaged pupils admitted and loosen the tie between location and school assignment. The case is made for random allocation as a necessary but not sufficient tool for improving the fairness of school admissions procedures.
The thesis concludes by suggesting that these findings should be used as the basis for a democratic deliberation on the appropriate role for the state in balancing fair procedures and admission mechanisms, with the freedom of parental choice.
Date of Award28 Nov 2019
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Bristol
SupervisorDebbie L Watson (Supervisor) & Professor Richard Harris (Supervisor)

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