Few lottery winners found among poor

6th March 2009 at 00:00
Balls admissions inquiry announced as study shows disadvantaged pupils being ring-fenced into their catchment areas

Under-privileged children relying on lottery-based admissions within catchment areas are seeing their opportunities dramatically restricted, according to a study released this week.

More than 20 per cent of children from a deprived area of Brighton and Hove missed out on going to a more successful secondary school outside their catchment area since the lottery system was introduced last year.

Figures obtained by the University of Brighton show that since the lottery admissions criteria were brought in, only 39 per cent of eligible children in the area's most deprived postcode gained access to schools outside their allotted catchment, as opposed to 60 per cent the year before.

The news comes in the same week that Ed Balls, education secretary, performed a U-turn and announced that he had commissioned the Chief Schools Adjudicator to launch an inquiry into the controversial lottery system, claiming it might not be the "fairest" method.

Brighton and Hove adopted the lottery-within-catchments system last year, and proclaimed it a success again this year. The process is used as a tiebreaker when a single school or dual school catchment area is oversubscribed.

But according to Keith Turvey, senior lecturer at Brighton University School of Education - who conducted the report - the admissions process gave children from more deprived areas "little or no chance" of gaining access to more successful schools outside their catchment.

Mr Turvey said: "If you are from a poor estate in one side of town, and you want to go to a popular school in another catchment at the other side of town, you don't have a chance because you're not even placed in that lottery."

He said this was because popular, successful schools were not generally found in and around deprived council estates.

"Popular schools are always oversubscribed, so there is little or no chance of kids from poorer catchment areas getting into them. The idea that a random selection offers a fairer opportunity to children is as much a myth as (that) it promotes 'social engineering'.

"All that is happening is that poorer kids are being ring-fenced into their single-school catchment areas," he added.

Of the 39 per cent of children who did manage to gain access to schools outside their immediate catchment, the majority did so because of their siblings who already attended the school - made possible by the old admissions system. The rest had links through religion.

Janet Felkin, head of Blatchington Mill School, one of the more popular schools in the area, sees both sides of the argument.

"Morally speaking, it is right that every child has an equal chance to go to a popular or good school, and that is what we should all be striving for - that every school is at the same level," she said.

"But the difficulty is that Brighton only has two catchment areas where parents actually have a choice of two schools, and only one of those has two good schools. The rest are single-catchment areas, and this has closed down the choice for parents. All we can do is strive to make all schools even better, but it's not easy."

There are about 25 local authorities currently using the lottery admissions system when it comes to a "last resort".

Liberal Democrat education spokesman David Laws said the fairest route would be to introduce a pupil premium, which attached an extra sum of money to disadvantaged pupils.

Mr Laws said: "The key to ending the scramble for good places is to raise standards in the under-performing schools which are currently being rejected by many parents.

"A pupil premium targeting extra money at schools taking the most disadvantaged pupils would make a real difference to driving up standards."

The Conservatives also say standards are the key to real choice.

Nick Gibb, shadow schools minister, said: "The scandal is that there are not enough good schools that parents are happy to send their children to. That's why every year there's this angst about which school children have got into."

He added: "One in five parents are disappointed because there are simply too many schools judged to be of poor quality. But if you have a situation where most local schools are good, then parents won't be unhappy to get their second choice.

"We cannot have the future of a child's education determined by the throw of a dice."

But Phil Revell, general secretary of the National Governors Association, said the idea of making all schools good schools was the same as claiming to "wipe out poverty".

Mr Revell told The TES: "The lottery system, provided the rules are clear and everyone understands, is a fair system. However, it is not a fair system if you tell parents they have a choice when they don't.

"Claiming to make every school a good school is impossible, as the definition will keep changing. All schools are good compared to 30 or 40 years ago. We just keep setting ourselves tougher benchmarks - and quite rightly."

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