A growing number of websites offering the public the chance to identify their ideal neighbourhood will lead to increased school segregation, a report published this week suggests.
The increased availability of on-line data about local populations, such as crime rates and breakdown by social class, will exacerbate the tendency of disadvantaged communities to be no-go areas for the middle classes, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation study says.
Internet-based neighbourhood information systems (IBNIS) such as www.upmystreet.com also offer property prices and links to information on the nearest schools, helping better-off and socially mobile parents to maximise chances of getting their children into the school of their choice.
The study will reignite the debate about admissions, and calls into question whether giving preference to pupils who live within a catchment area can be expected to create schools with a healthy mix of pupils from different backgrounds.
"The advent of IBNIS is changing the ways we search for new neighbourhoods in which to live (and) decide which school catchment to live in," the report said.
"Are we entering an era in which software is not only being used by commerce and policy-makers to 'sort places out' but is now also being made available to members of the public with the consequence that they can also 'sort themselves out'?"
On-line descriptions of areas suffering high levels of poverty are likely to undermine the social life and well-being of certain localities, it said.
The report, by Roger Burrows and Brian Woods of York university and Nick Ellison of Durham university, raises questions about whether pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds can get a fair deal from the present school admissions system.
The Commons education select committee said last year that the procedures for secondary admissions fail many parents and pupils and create sink schools with behaviour problems and low expectations of pupils.
MPs said: "The evidence is that admission arrangements which produce significantly unbalanced pupil profiles cause some schools acute problems."
But they rejected calls from Phil Collins, then director of the Social Market Foundation and now a Downing Street adviser, to require all oversubscribed schools to allocate places by lottery rather than allowing them to select pupils by factors such as proximity to school or faith.
John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said:
"Clearly this has implicatons for school admissions and may lead to a rethink about admissions criteria."
Neighbourhoods on the net: The nature and impact of internet-based neighbourhood information systems by Professor Roger Burrows et al is available from www.jrf.org.uk