Leading article: Good schools and bad policy

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The Independent Online

It is only a year since the Government unveiled a bold new policy on secondary school admissions. Local councils were given the ability to allocate places to over-subscribed schools through a lottery system.

This was intended to counteract the trend of parents buying houses close to excellent state schools to increase the chances of their children gaining admission (an option not open, for obvious reasons, to less well-off local families).

The policy was bold because the wealthy "losers" from such a reform were always likely to complain more loudly than the poorer beneficiaries would cheer. So the upsurge in complaints against the lottery system yesterday, as the allocation of secondary school places for the next academic year was announced, could be interpreted as an indication the new system is working as intended. And yet the Education Secretary Ed Balls appears to be retreating at the first whiff of complaint. Yesterday he ordered an investigation into whether the system is fair, indicating that it could be dismantled. Yet it is hard to see how a return to a system of academic "selection by house price" would be a progressive step.

Of course, those parents who are unhappy at their children being refused their first choice of school do not deserve scorn. It is no crime to champion what you perceive to be your child's best interests. Indeed, the country would be better off if more parents took such a close interest in the education of their children.

There is an underlying problem here, namely the strong perception among parents that there are not enough decent secondary schools to go around. Until this is put right, there will always be friction around admissions. And ministers will always be under pressure to construct policies that favour the vocal middle classes.

Rather than tinkering with a lottery system that, although crude, has at least helped to level the playing field for children of less well-off families, Mr Balls should be concentrating his efforts on improving the supply of good schools to meet the demand of all parents.

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