Parents must have freedom of choice

For all parents, the most important issue is where their children can get the best education.

CatchmentMapImageFor all parents, the most important issue is where their children can get the best education. For most councillors, the most important issue is how to win the next election.

When city councillors discussed on Monday a review of the catchment areas for secondary schools in Brighton and Hove, they decided - unsurprisingly - to put off any decision until March 2016.

Do not be fooled. In the next 285 days to the city council elections, ask any candidate who wants to borrow your vote where they stand on catchment areas. It is important.

It is barely six years since a "cross-party" agreement - in truth, self-serving horse-trading by self-serving elected representatives - came up with a "permanent" solution: a patchwork of "catchment areas that catch".

Or, more accurately, a network of exclusion zones that prevent the less-well-off families on the periphery of the city - where the ludicrous notion of single-school catchment areas predominate - from accessing schools in the "golden halo", the middle-class centre (where two-school catchment areas are the norm).

Matters now are serious. Very serious. Middle-class families who pay upwards of £500,000 for homes in the "golden halo" risk not getting their children into their favoured schools.

Imagine. Last year, 16 well-heeled families suffered this hardship. Almost; a short-term fix was arranged.

Something clearly has to be done. But not yet. Because that would mean council candidates would have to do their horse-trading in the run-up to an election.

So what is the answer?

Perhaps a hybrid system: families living within a certain distance of a local secondary school could have an inalienable right to send their child to that school; perhaps families slightly further away could apply and hope for the best, with any over-subscription decided by random allocation of places. Perhaps there could be three-school catchment areas in Brighton and in Hove.

Whatever the solution, the goal is clear: to enable parents, regardless of wealth, to exercise as much freedom of choice as possible, within the context of a city that encourages "local schools for local communities".