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From The Socialist newspaper, 8 March 2007

Editorial

Secondary education becoming a lottery

NOT STOPPING at betting using mammoth hedge funds or the building of super-size gambling dens rather than factories, casino capitalism is now being applied to schools, with the decision by Brighton and Hove council to introduce a lottery next year for popular secondary school places.

This has divided local parents into opposing campaigns, for and against the change. Hertfordshire council also operates a lottery for some of its school places and if the Brighton policy is not defeated by the opposition campaign, other councils are likely to follow suit.

Many parents - particularly from the middle class - select a popular school first and then deliberately live close by to ensure places for their children. These parents are now in turmoil at the prospect of their goal being obstructed. They also face the financial problem that the value of their houses - inflated by proximity to a popular school - could plummet if their children no longer have automatic entry to it. Recent research revealed that being near a 'good' school has added up to 42,000 to the price of a house.

Those in favour of the Brighton lottery argue it is fairer, in that children whose parents cannot afford to live close to popular schools may now get into those schools if they 'win' the lottery. They are backed by some media commentators - for instance the Independent newspaper congratulated Brighton council and claimed that the lottery system will lead to better schools throughout the country.

At first sight, lottery allocation may seem fairer, but it is capitalist madness in reality. Resources are not being provided to give every school student a decent education no matter where they live, so it will be left to random chance to determine the school they will go to! Many working and middle-class children living on the doorstep of a popular school would not get into it.

The government's pro-market and privatisation policies have increased the divide between popular and unpopular schools, driving some local authorities towards these lotteries. New Labour's education policy is the more privatisation and selection the better, with the backhand aim of handing profit-making opportunities to their big business friends.

Parental choice?

THIS AGENDA lies behind the drive for 400 privately run city academies that can select part of their intake. As well as academies, the government promotes specialist subject schools, faith schools and a new type of trust school run by businesses or charities. And figures released this week show that the number of children in selective grammar schools is now 20% greater than when New Labour came to power.

The Blairites argue that they are increasing parental choice and driving school standards up through 'consumers' deciding which schools expand and which close. But tens of thousands of parents are being told this week that they have not got their first choice. The figures do not even show the full extent of those denied their first choice, because many parents do not bother to apply to their favourite school if they believe there is no chance of a place there.

Government policy is not without opposition from some leading education researchers and MPs. New Labour's own think tank, the Institute for Public Policy Research said last month that allowing some schools to run their own admissions policy increases social segregation and so local authorities should control admissions.

It is because of opposition such as this that some measures that run counter to undisguised selection - such as lotteries for places - are now being supported by the government (and lotteries are also supported by the Tories and Liberal Democrats). But lotteries only introduce further turmoil, emotional upset and new inequalities into the system.

Parents naturally want the best for their children. However, most also do not want the stress of intense competition and would happily settle for a good school that is near their home.

Nobody should have to feel they need to buy or rent an expensive flat or house - sometimes beyond their means - to get their children into a 'good' school. Also, a side effect of increased house prices around these schools is that the school staff are forced to live far from their workplace, unable to afford to live closer.

The only way to provide fairness, equality and good education for all pupils is through a massive injection of resources to ensure all comprehensive schools are well funded. This should include plenty of qualified teaching staff and specialists to cater for students with special needs - whether the needs are for extra educational or behavioural help or for the development of particular talents and abilities, or for aspects of both of these combined.

Also, school admission procedures should be democratically decided and administered by elected local authorities in conjunction with education workers and parents, to help end the present polarisation between popular and unpopular schools that is worsened by allowing individual schools to select.

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