Leading article: The schools lottery is an admission of failure

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The Independent Online

Life is a lottery. As we report today, ministers want to make that literally as well as metaphorically true. One of the most important factors in determining the life prospects of children has always been the quality of their education. For that reason, many parents will do almost anything to secure their child's place at what they think is a good school. Private secondary schooling costs, on average, £65,000. Others spend as much or more extra to buy a house in the catchment areas of popular state schools. Some take a sudden and devout interest in church attendance. There are countless ways in which parental choice, and covert social selection of pupils by schools, continues to polarise Britain's schools in many areas as sharply as the 11-plus ever did.

Hence ministerial enthusiasm for the idea of choosing pupils for popular schools by lot. It is a system that could not be manipulated, either by pushy or rich parents or by schools. And it would counter concerns that academy schools, for example, which are over-subscribed, will be colonised by the middle classes playing the admissions game.

One virtue of proposing a system of random chance is that it turns a spotlight on the murkier devices currently used to secure desirable places. The fact that many teachers may not like a lottery can be discounted. The reason for their opposition is that it would mean that head teachers would find it more difficult to keep what are now known as challenging pupils out of their schools.

The more fundamental problem is that parents are unlikely to accept the legitimacy of a system based, in effect, on the roll of a dice. This is not simply because they are irrationally committed to the fate of their children, unable to appreciate the purity of a perfectly fair system for the allocation of a scarce resource. It is because people prefer a system based on hypocrisy - where at least they can see the iniquities - to one based on luck. While a lottery is theoretically a fairer way to allocate oversubscribed places than any other, it deprives parents of some ability to plan ahead, and takes what small degree of control they have out of their hands.

It was one of Tony Blair's boldest boasts that he could reverse the polarisation of Britain's education system by turning round standards of schools in deprived areas, and by making state schools generally so good that the middle classes would no longer want to go private.

While the Labour government has achieved a great deal in education, it has not been able significantly to reverse the polarising forces at work that segregate schools on class and ethnic lines. For a government that has ambitions to give disadvantaged children a better chance in the lottery of life, it is a disappointment to be offering another lottery.