“It’s a Postcode Lottery” is a recurring term used to highlight any difference in provision of services between one area and another.
The underlying assumption in all such cases is that this “lottery” is unfair and that services should not be dependent upon the “luck” of where one happens to live, i.e. they should be exactly the same throughout the country. I’d started to tease this out in a recent article entitled “Uniformity or Diversity” and wanted to explore this concept a little further.
“Postcode lottery” is, without exception, employed as a disparaging term. Here are just a few headlines to demonstrate this:
- Women denied IVF on NHS ‘by postcode lottery’
- Postcode lottery of Down’s syndrome screening revealed
- School admissions: still a postcode lottery?
- Vulnerable pupils face postcode lottery in classroom
- Warning of ‘postcode lottery’ in education
All of the above use the term “postcode lottery” as shorthand for something which is unfair and can only be rectified by a change to situation where provision is identical – regardless of where you live. But what if you were to take the opposite perspective, i.e. begin to see variation and diversity as a strength – not a weakness?
You see my problem lies with the fact that things are different from one community to another. Things have never been identical. Just because things are different doesn’t mean that they have to be worse – just as we mustn’t think that just because things are identical that they must be automatically better.
I’ll exemplify this using two secondary schools in an authority. They are both allocated an identical amount of money through a formula allocation. The only way the authority could avoid being accused of creating a “postcode lottery” would be to give each school definitive guidance on how every pound was to be spent in each of the schools. All of the following (and much more) would have to be identical: the curriculum, the times for each subject identical, the quality of teachers, the extra curricular activities, the discipline system, menus for lunches, the subjects to be taught at all levels, pupil support systems, etc, etc. Any divergence between the two schools would fall into the trap that is a “postcode lottery”. Of course, some would claim that I’m being too extreme here only to make my point – but I’d argue you can’t have your cake and eat it. You either accept variation or you don’t!
Variation within postcodes is a reality – it exists and the sooner we realise that the better. Surely the real challenge is not so much to ensure that things are identical but to ensure that the quality of service provided in every postcode is of an exceptionally high standard.
So if variation exists how might we turn it to our advantage? It’s here that I would return to the theme I’ve been exploring for some time now i.e. community ownership of schools. For if a community decides that it wants to see its schools diverge from what the schools in the next community are doing – in order to meet its priorities – why shouldn’t it be allowed to do so?
There are more than enough legislative guidelines in place to ensure that the needs of individuals within each community can be protected within such an autonomous system. The real challenge lies with the funding body who need to find a way to ensure that each community achieves national and local outcomes – but is given the necessary freedom to find its own approach to achieve these outcomes. That really is the $64,000 lottery prize!