New Algorithm set to Improve Equality and Efficiency of School Choice Allocation
Dr Josue Ortega at Queen’s Management School is leading research aimed at improving the way in which pupils are assigned to post-primary schools in Northern Ireland and abroad.
In Northern Ireland, and many other countries such as the USA, England and France, parents of children in their final year of primary school are asked for their preference ranking of available secondary schools. Parental preferences are collected by the Education Authority of Northern Ireland, who then use an algorithm to produce an allocation of pupils to schools.
Currently in Northern Ireland, around nine in ten pupils are assigned to the school that they rank as their top choice. However, the number of admissions appeals in 2021 saw a 200% increase from the year before: 856 appeals, with 128 being upheld, showing a stark increase in the number of dissatisfied parents.
Dr Josue Ortega, Lecturer in Economics at Queen’s Management School, is undertaking a ground-breaking research project for Northern Ireland, titled “Improving Efficiency and Equality in School Choice”, alongside Professor Thilo Klein of the Leibniz Centre for European Economic Research.
The research will introduce a new school choice algorithm, that will guarantee more children are assigned to a school their parents’ have ranked higher on their application.
The algorithm does this by choosing the assignment of pupils to schools that minimises the rank of the school to which the average student is assigned to. Two in ten extra children are assigned to their first choice, using the improved method. It also guarantees that no pupil is assigned to a school that their parents find undesirable.
Using theoretical mathematical models, the research contrasts predictions with real data. The school choice data analysed so far has come from Hungary, and the next stage of the project involves expanding analysis to other countries.
Asked about the implications of his study on the education system in Northern Ireland, Dr Ortega says:
“Our findings will help to analyse the current allocation of Northern Ireland’s children to post-primary schools. The new algorithm will be fairer and more efficient way of ensuring pupils are assigned to a school of their choosing.
We are looking for the Education Authority of Northern Ireland to share anonymised data on students’ applications with us, allowing us to run simulations and see exactly how many students could be assigned to a more preferred school with our algorithm.”
This research is funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council and the Centre for European Economic Research in Germany.
In early 2022, this funding allowed Dr Ortega to organize a two-day workshop in Belfast featuring presentations by expert academics in the field of school choice, from the UK, Germany, USA, Belgium, Denmark, and Uruguay, in which latest research findings were discussed.
Most recently, Dr Ortega’s research was accepted to a prestigious economics workshop on ‘Matching Under Preferences’ in Vienna, the leading peer-reviewed conference in this research area.
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