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Sandra Laville and Rebecca Smithers

Thursday March 1, 2007

The Guardian

The middle classes of Brighton are locked in a bitter war involving death threats, espionage and allegations of gerrymandering over whose children have the right to go to the best schools in the city.

Two factions of parents have been split by controversial plans to award school places based on a lottery system, confirmed by the town's Labour council.

On one side are the parents of "muesli mountain", families who live in period houses and name their community website the "caring corner". On the other are the well heeled of the "golden halo", couples who have paid up to half a million pounds for homes in the catchment of the two leading secondaries.

And on the sidelines, critics say, are the most deprived children of the city, who have been left voiceless and marginalised.

A two-year discussion, involving parents, teachers and city councillors, about the admissions policy of the eight state secondaries in Brighton and Hove culminated on Tuesday night in a narrowly won vote, on the casting hand of the Labour chairman of the children, families and schools committee, to change the system. No longer will parents who live nearest the two most sought after schools - Dorothy Stringer high and Varndean - be guaranteed a place in the high achieving schools. Instead the catchment areas of all eight schools have been redrawn to reflect a better social mix. If schools are oversubscribed there will be a lottery for places.

Outside Tuesday's meeting at Brighton town hall opposing groups of parents and children waved banners and shouted. Inside councillors, some of whom say they have received intimidatory emails from parents, voted 5:5 for the new policy and Pat Hawkes, the Labour chair, cast her vote in favour of agreed Labour policy to change the system.

Residents of Hanover and Queen's Park, an area known as "muesli mountain" reflecting the mix of teachers, social workers and social liberals who have moved there, celebrated a decision which will give them access to the two best schools. Chris Bourne, spokesman for these parents, said the opposing group, known as Schools 4 Communities, had demonised them. "I have been to public meetings which make it clear this is all about keeping the people from Hanover and Queen's Park out of these schools."

He said the other side had misrepresented the issue. "They have characterised this issue as being about a couple of areas in Brighton, our areas, getting access to their schools, portraying it as an invasion of middle class social liberals."

Within hours of the new policy being voted in Schools 4 Communities, made up of parents within the old catchment area of the schools, vowed to take the battle to the high court and launch a judicial review. Mark Bannister, a reinsurance broker, said parents had offered thousands of pounds in some cases to fund the legal action. He accused the council of gerrymandering, claiming that both Labour and the Green party replaced councillors on the committee who opposed the policy. He added: "We have the emails to prove this."

Mr Bannister, who admits he bought his house to be within the catchment area of the two schools, denied it was about defending the rights of the affluent middle classes to send their children to the best and closest schools. "The most deprived areas of the city are being ringfenced into two schools under this new policy, both of which are going to be at serious risk of failing as a result," he added.

Simon Burgess, the Labour leader of the city, said the policy was changed to tackle a growing crisis in Brighton in which a couple of areas had a choice of good schools, while others had no choice. He admitted that he had sacked the Labour vice-chairman of the committee two hours before one of the votes, because she indicated she was going to oppose the policy.


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Miles Brignall

Saturday March 3, 2007

The Guardian

Parents who paid up to £100,000 extra for a house they thought would guarantee their child a place in the best school could be sitting on some serious losses if the Brighton scheme is extended nationwide.

In 2005 a survey by Halifax bank found that parents were prepared to pay 12% more for houses in the right catchment area.

But estate agents speaking yesterday said some owners who had paid such premiums look set be disappointed when they come to sell up following a similar overhaul of school entry criteria.

Paul Bonett, owner of Bonett's estate agents and last year's president of Brighton & Hove estate agents' association, said that much of the anger being directed at the new scheme is coming from parents who deliberately moved houses to improve their chances.

"Everyone wanted to live in the Fiveways area of the city to give them a better chance of getting their children into the three most popular secondary schools.

Some parents have moved across the city solely for this reason - and will have paid an extra £50,000 in increased prices alone - even more once you factor in stamp duty and the other costs of moving."

He said three-bed Victorian houses typically sell for around £320,000, rising to £370,000 in the most sought after roads. He predicted prices in that area will now slowly return to levels seen across the rest of the city, as buyers come to terms with the new entry criteria.

In Muswell Hill, north London, where a few hundred yards can currently mean the difference between gaining entry to the best schools or not, the price premium on houses that do can easily top £100,000.

Clive Stanley, manager of London's oldest estate agent, Prickett & Ellis, said owners could expect a correction in prices if local school entry criteria were changed. However, he ruled out a big price drop.

"I am constantly amazed at the lengths parents will go to get their children into the best schools. The average house in the area probably sells for around £650,000. For one that gets you closer, and thereby into, to the best schools you can add another £100,000 straight away.

"We recently had a case of a family who let their house for 12 months, only to rent another, at the other end of the same road because it gave them a better chance to getting into their preferred school."

Another agent, who declined to be named for fear of upsetting his professional clients, said he would welcome such a scheme. "Personally I feel this is long overdue. For too long those with the most money have bought their way into the best schools. A lottery would end the price premiums on these houses overnight, and leave some people looking at some rather big losses," he said.

In St Albans, Hertfordshire, agents reported houses in the right feeder roads costing £50,000 more, even for small terraced houses. "Lots of people are moving to St Albans from London for the simple reason the local schools are so good. A lottery scheme would help even up prices around the city," said Craig Baxter, a negotiator at local agent Bairstow Eves.

Jonathan Wood of Bidwells in Norwich, another area considering introducing a lottery scheme, said families hoping to buy in the city's golden triangle currently have to pay a 10% premium partly because of its proximity to the popular High School for girls.

"I'm not sure prices would fall if a schools lottery were introduced - people buy in that area for a host of reasons," he said.

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Letters in the Guardian over this issue:

Tuesday March 6, 2007

The Guardian

We are a group of academics writing in support of Brighton and Hove city council's decision to introduce a new system for schools admissions, which combines fixed catchment areas with a lottery for oversubscribed schools (War over school boundaries divides Brighton, March 1). Together with new government rules on admissions policies, this decision indicates a welcome shift towards an educational system based on equal opportunities for all, rather than the privileged few.

For anybody involved in the education system in contemporary Britain, the starting point has to be fairness. As academics, we all too often meet students who, for reasons of social deprivation and class prejudice, have not had the same opportunities as their peers.

In the case of Brighton and Hove, the opportunity to attend "academically successful" (in terms of GCSE results) schools has increasingly been available only to children whose families live near the schools. These areas included three of the wealthiest council wards. Areas of economic deprivation, including two wards which rank in the top 5% of deprived areas in the country, had little or no access to these schools.

The new system shifts the social balance of these and other schools, and ensures that most children now have a chance of attaining an equal education. If the council combines it with a commitment to continued investment in less popular schools then it will have gone some way towards improving social inclusion in the city.

Lucy Noakes

University of Brighton

And 16 others

I read your article with a heavy heart. I rather hoped the Guardian, my daily of choice, might have tried to get to the nub of the matter. But for you it was all jokes and fun "death threats" and "war" among the middle classes: muesli mountain versus machiavellian middle-class nimbies. It does nothing to present the facts or convey the real problems underlying this dreadful situation.

The wealthier among us will buy our way out of trouble via a private school or by moving house; we will not allow our children to go to a school where they are likely to underachieve or endure poor standards of behaviour. Those who do not have the income to do this will suffer the most. The real shame here is that this review has excluded all the areas of social deprivation in Brighton from the "good" schools. Worse, it has increased severely the index of kids on free school meals (the only deprivation index to hand) in Falmer school and in Longhill school. Will these schools cope? Will they get any help? No. Because to achieve this blow for the have-nots, this Labour council, backed by the Green party, has agreed to spend £1.4m making 60 more places at Varndean school for kids from muesli mountain and the middle-class nimbies. The poor parents on the estates are worse off, not better! The only real winners here are Jarvis - they hold the PFI on the new build at Varndean and will no doubt demand a huge premium to get the work done in time for the intake of 2008.

Siobhan McAlinden


A few weeks ago a Unicef report damned educational values in the UK. Here in Brighton, two factions of middle-class parents intent on ensuring their children get first dibs on the best-performing schools have fought a bitter battle, leaving deprived children on the sidelines, marginalised and voiceless in the council's deliberations over schools admissions. Education is not just about getting your child access to the best-performing schools at all costs. It's about building a community base from which children may become grounded, informed and well-rounded citizens. Judging from the way people have behaved in Brighton over this contentious issue, we're not going to rise off the bottom of the Unicef table any time soon.

Juliet Greenwood


The central cause of the problem in Brighton is that a significant part of the city which includes Whitehawk estate as well as Hanover and Queens Park has had its "catchment" school closed as it was increasingly unmanageable - a result in part of a council policy of placing problem families on the estate. It is ridiculous that children should have to travel across the city to school while some of those adjacent to these sought-after schools have to travel elsewhere for their education. The answer has to be a new school or schools in that part of Brighton to meet the demand and aspirations of families and to address the social problems that have long needed attention.

Steve Lee

Selmeston, East Sussex

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