Amy Jenkins: School lottery system is the way forward

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The Independent Online

Where I live in west London it's almost as if there's segregation in the state school system. When it comes to primary schools, there are two kinds. There are those that are "Ofsted outstanding", as they say in the trade – oversubscribed and largely middle-class. Then there are those that aren't. Mostly these are excellent schools – I know because my husband is a governor at one – but they wrestle with the difficulties that come with having a 60 per cent intake of children with English as an additional language and over half of children eligible for free school meals.

Mostly, these schools are undersubscribed and caught in the Ofsted trap. This happens when the oversubscribed schools nearby end up operating a selection policy of one sort of another. This might be legitimate, as in the case of faith schools, or accidental, as in the case of schools that select by catchment – where more affluent parents are able to buy into the school via the property ladder. Either way it's bad news for the less popular schools because it creams off local pupils who are more likely to succeed. Good results and an impressive Ofsted become harder to achieve.

It's no surprise then that these social divisions in the state system carries on to secondary education. A new report from the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham, sponsored by the highly regarded Sutton Trust, has found that the top state schools in the country are remarkably socially exclusive. They looked at the top 164 comprehensives in England and found that only 9.2 per cent of the children came from "income-deprived" backgrounds.

The most selective schools had a high proportion of pupils from white backgrounds and fewer children with special needs. Most interestingly, these schools were found to be even more socially exclusive than the remaining 164 grammar schools in the country – where 13.5 per cent of the children were from poorer homes. One might conclude that when the school is openly selective, when the abilities of the children are taken into account – rather than the abilities of the parents to wangle the system – 4.3 per hundred more clever, but deprived, children get in.

No doubt Labour meant well when they introduced the idea of choice in schools – and the Ofsted league tables that made that choice meaningful. However the more resourceful parents have taken choice by the horns and wrestled it to the ground. They have hunted choice down with measuring tapes, prayers, and formal appeals. They are the ones jumping into the 4x4 every morning to drive their kids to the church school in the next borough. For "more resourceful" read middle-class, of course – because in reality it's the more privileged in our society who have the time and money and confidence and know-how to work the system. They are the ones who can exploit the "wriggle room" in the rules on admissions.

And I don't blame them actually. Whatever your political beliefs, it's hard to face up to the possibility of compromising your child's education when you know that if you act alone it will make no difference. That's why admissions lotteries are the only answer. They'd give schools a better chance of having the all-important mix of social backgrounds that transforms schools.

Although many middle-class parents desperately want their children to go to good schools, they also – myself included – don't really want their children to go to socially exclusive schools. I wouldn't sacrifice the former desire for the latter, but I would give up my preference for walking my child round to our local school in favour of a lottery system that was fairer for everyone.

Queen Liz knows how to play the fame game

It wasn't so long ago that Elizabeth Taylor was rumoured to be at death's door. For nearly three years she retreated to a specially-built hospital room at her house where she reportedly took painkillers for a back condition and ate pack after pack of organic biscuits while "bedecked", as she likes to call it, in her beloved diamonds.

Now she's resurfaced, aged 78, and a "source" has told a magazine that she's engaged to be married for the ninth time. The lucky man is Jason Winters and he's a Hollywood agent 29 years her junior. Taylor has told the press she loves Winters although her bitchy gay coterie have apparently scoffed at the idea that this is a real marriage.

Not that Winters is after her money – he's got his own – but it's insinuated that the real object of Liz's affection is the Gloria Swanson role in a planned re-make of Sunset Boulevard. They say the romance is a stunt to let Hollywood know the "queen of the cougars" is back in business. I say, do you really need to be swimming with the sharks at 78, Liz? (She was winched into a tank full recently in Hawaii.) Go back to bed and enjoy your biscuits.

I salute this mischievous pair

Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens want to arrest the Pope. I haven't heard anything so cheering since Cheryl told Ashley where to go. The atheist friends have been consulting lawyers in preparation for Pope Benedict XVI's planned visit to the UK this September. It seems they want him clapped in handcuffs the minute he sets foot on British soil, then put on trial for his alleged cover-up of sexual abuse in the Catholic church. Last week, Dawkins called the Pope a "leering villain in a frock" in the Washington Post and said his first instinct was to cover up scandal.

The Vatican has suggested that the Pope is immune from prosecution because he is a foreign head of state, but lawyers for Dawkins and Hitchens are convinced that they could get over this. The Vatican is not recognised as a state in international law, they say. What with the Italian Bishop who has suggested that Jews are behind the current criticism of the Catholic church, I can't help enjoying the mischievous idea of the Pope's arrest. I salute Dawkins and Hitchens for the sheer inventive irreverence of it. Of course, it'll never happen – but, for this godless duo, it would be like all their Christmases had come at once if it did.

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