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27 May 2011

Lotteries for school places banned, in another blow to disadvantaged pupils

The measure, aimed at stopping middle-class families from dominating good schools, will be scrapped.

By Samira Shackle

The Education Secretary, Michael Gove, has unveiled further plans (£) to take power over school admissions away from local councils and into the hands of individual schools.

Under the proposals, councils will lose the right to run wide-scale random ballots, which were introduced by Labour four years ago as a way to tackle the problem of middle-class parents essentially buying their way in to good schools by moving into the catchment area.

More than 30 councils are believed to use lotteries. Those that do so systemically, such as Brighton and Hove, will be in breach of new legislation – though individual schools will still be able to allocate places randomly.

The lotteries were controversial, to say the least – one criticism is that they can lead to children being forced to travel long distances – but they were at least a nod to the problem of good schools being dominated by students whose parents can afford to live near to them.

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Other steps included in the measures will compound this – for instance, allowing good schools to expand their numbers. It is suspected that councils are currently preventing this, as weaker schools will suffer. In theory, allowing good schools to grow makes sense: but given that these “good schools” are dominated by the middle classes, it is clear that it could have a devastating impact on disadvantaged areas.

In this week’s New Statesman education special, Peter Wilby explains why the government is not doing enough to protect against these detrimental effects on children from lower socio-economic backgrounds:

Gove has an answer to claims that his policies will hit children from less affluent homes: the pupil premium, an extra £430 for each pupil eligible for free school meals. The Lib Dems insisted on the premium if they were to support Gove’s grand design. They believe not only that it will channel resources to the most needy more effectively, but that it will give all schools an incentive to recruit disadvantaged children rather than cherry-picking those who are most likely to gain exam results that guarantee a high place in league tables. But the premium seems unlikely to achieve either goal. The £430 represents less than a 10 per cent uplift on what is spent on the average pupil. Moreover, schools will be free to spend the pupil premium as they wish. There is no guarantee it will reach the children who are supposed to benefit.

NHS reform and the response from Labour have dominated the headlines, but the sea change in education is just as serious. Disadvantaged children are already all too frequently failed by our schools. These changes – in addition to the removal of EMA and the possible reintroduction of technical colleges – could embed a two-tier education system that will be very difficult to reverse.

For more detailed analysis of the “silent revolution” in education, pick up a copy of this week’s NS, available from all good newsagents.