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From The Socialist newspaper, 5 April 2007

Lewisham

Privilege and privation in our schools

THE DIVIDE between schools is particularly obvious in a big city like London. With so many schools close to each other, there is growing competition to attract the 'best' pupils.

Where the local authority still has control over admissions, some degree of common planning is possible. Some policies operate on nearness to school or agreed catchment areas. Boroughs like Lewisham operate an "area banding" system where pupils are placed into one of five ability bands and each secondary school is then allocated 20% of its intake from each band.

The system ensures a number of genuinely comprehensive community schools still thrive in Lewisham. But it is under increasing pressure from schools that run their own admissions procedures, within and outside the borough.

Two Lewisham schools have started to ignore the banding arrangements, allowing them to skew their intake towards pupils in the higher ability bands. Most notoriously, the privileged Haberdashers' Aske's Hatcham Academy has long used its independent control over admissions to attract able pupils from across Lewisham and beyond. In 2006, it admitted just 7% of its pupils from Lewisham's lowest band.

Far from being ostracised for undermining other local secondaries, Aske's was allowed to polarise local admissions even further when it was given control of a second academy, Knight's.

Aske's' empire-building hasn't stopped there. They are bidding to run another academy in Haringey, north London. Lewisham's New Labour council also plans to give their Hatcham academy control of a nearby primary to create a 3-18 school. House prices are reportedly already rising in surrounding streets as families look to secure a place for their youngsters.

But for every 'winner' there will also be losers. Two community schools have been thrown into real difficulties. Unable to attract many children from the highest ability bands, the schools instead fill with pupils with needs that are much harder to meet.

In contrast to Aske's one school admitted only 4% of last September's intake from the highest band, over 40% from the lowest. Many need individual support which the schools simply aren't resourced to provide.

NUT meetings in both schools have been held to seek to organise and defend staff worn down by the challenges of teaching in such difficult circumstances. Inevitably, some teachers are already leaving to go to less stressful schools. But this worsens the polarisation.

These problems will grow across the country unless Labour's market policies are challenged. All schools have to be brought under democratic local control so that a commonly agreed comprehensive admissions policy can be applied right across a locality. At the same time, schools have to be funded to provide the qualified staffing and resources to meet every child's needs.

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