Too many losers in this game of chance

Libby Purves

The Brighton admissions lottery brought predictable cries of despair - the most telling from a child who, asked how he'd feel about a lottery, said: "It would make me feel like nothing." I can see that. I can also see how stressed the "winners" will be if they turn out not to like the school.

Some of the most tense and miserable children I've ever met were those whose parents pushed them through coaching, tests, interviews and religious pretence, and then hated the sought-after school. It was too pushy, infested with "cool kids", too unsympathetic to the dreamer, or just too far away. It must be like winning a part in Hollywood and then finding you loathe the director, the movie and the climate and wish you were back home doing panto. I suppose children have to learn that winning lotteries doesn't ensure happiness, but it seems hard when there are years of life at stake.

In a perfect world, there would be enough choice for pupils to visit a couple of schools and decide, with parents, which one is most likely to make them happy. In an imperfect but tolerable world, everyone would just go to the nearest school, as they used to, and expect good teaching and behaviour as standard. The trouble with the lottery system is that it seems to run up the white flag and acknowledge that some schools will always be lousy and that the answer is to spread misery more evenly around the social classes.

But why? There should be no sink schools; they should not be tolerated. But they are because they have excuses: too many non-English speakers, poor families, emotional and behavioural difficulties. They are tolerated because some people still have ideas about not imposing white middle-class values and think that fights and rowdy classrooms are good for "knocking the corners off" coddled kids. They are tolerated because groups of pupils, such as black boys, are not expected to do well and never stretched by tough male staff. They are tolerated because teachers are just so damn tired and go off sick, leaving jaded supply staff to hold the fort; or because they haven't had a head for ages because nobody wants a job in which your neck is on the line daily. Face it: there are some awful schools, and 10 years of new money and central government meddling has not made them extinct.

And neither will a lottery. The theory that an influx of middle-class children will magically turn a school round is hokum. It won't - any more than the custom of the country's most affluent commuters makes the southern railways work, or the wealth of Hampstead makes London's Northern Line reliable. Rather than keep changing the rules for all schools and caning good ones for "coasting", governments should have spent the past 20 years focused on the bad ones, forcibly improving them through discipline, exclusion, autonomy, encouragement, investment, music, sport, a less tedious curriculum, more practical pursuits for gung-ho boys, and zero tolerance of all the things that put choosy parents off.

They haven't. The result is a lottery for the lifeboats. God help us.

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Libby Purves

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