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Keywords:

  • inequality;
  • catchment areas;
  • education;
  • distance;
  • allocational criteria;
  • schools

There is a longstanding literature on the unequal geographical distribution of welfare. In this paper we argue that increasingly geography is becoming the basis for rationing access to some forms of welfare. Focusing on access to secondary schools in East London, England, where the demand for places at the more popular schools generally far exceeds the number of places available, we show how distance from school has now become the primary means of allocating places. Rather than educational resources attempting to compensate for geographical disadvantage, geography (in the form of distance from school) has become the rationale by which those living in advantaged areas continue to have privileged access to educational resources. Whereas previously the role of the state was to compensate for the unfairness of such geographical inequalities, geography (via distance to school) is now used to justify the unequal allocation of scarce school places. The paper demonstrates that not only does the near universal adoption of distance-based allocation policies in East London lead to the reproduction of social advantage and disadvantage, but also it is creating new hierarchies of school popularity and more important unpopularity which are not always clearly related to issues of school attainment.