Wednesday 2 July 2008

The real indefensible postcode lottery

I had my first experience of a school admissions appeal panel on Friday, a strange experience. Robin had been denied a place at our local primary school because we live in a long cul-de-sac in the middle of a large allotment, and the council refused to count the path we use through the allotments to get anywhere on that side of the house.

Still, we won, so I can’t complain. But sitting in the waiting room with the other parents, each with a thick pile of notes and documents in front of them, I suddenly realised how unfair the current schools admissions process has become. And it’s all because of the weasel phrase ‘catchment area’.

When we use a phrase like that, we assume that catchment areas are like constituencies – that their boundaries rub up against each other and that everybody lives in one. The clear implication is that people can choose between sending their children to the local school or to a school outside their catchment area, and that this is known as ‘choice’.

Actually this is all nonsense. The truth is that many people – probably most people – actually live outside the catchment areas of schools, which breathe in and out according to how many places they have. Most of them live outside the catchment area of any school in the north of my London borough (Croydon), and it is this category of children who really get a raw deal – allocated somewhere they haven’t chosen, maybe a long way away.

When commentators apply the phrase ‘postcode lottery’ to health, it doesn’t really fit. Different areas have different priorities after all. But the catchment areas of schools, shrunken as they are, mean a real postcode lottery. If you live outside them, you have a far lower chance of going to the school you want – any school, never mind the local one. You are a plaything of bureaucrats, a hopeless supplicant against the system. And all in the name of ‘choice’.

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