Nobody has a good word to say about school decile ratings even when they are properly understood. They are not rating the quality of the education the school provides, they are rating the wealth of its community for the purpose of compensating "poorer" schools with more public funding.

Schools in the lower deciles do not like the system because it unfairly stigmatises them, while higher decile schools say they dislike asking parents and sponsors for funds they think the state should provide. When deciles are reviewed on Census data, schools in areas of rising incomes tend to worry about losing some of their public grant rather than celebrating their good fortune.

But there is no doubt who is really worse off. As our reports this week have found, lower decile schools are steadily losing pupils to schools in better-off areas as parents seek the best for their children. Though often called "white flight", it is not simply a racial or cultural response.

If it were, there would still be a natural balance of ability in the lower decile schools. But educationists say "brown flight" also occurs to a lesser extent. Educationally motivated parents of any ethnicity are sending their children to a higher decile school.

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Nobody can blame them. They do not buy the notion that the quality of a school has nothing to do with the wealth of its community. They hear educationists and social scientists talking all the time about low-decile schools being "disadvantaged" and draw the obvious conclusions.

The extra funding these schools have been receiving for the past 20 years appears to have made no difference to their condition. Arguably, the benefits of the decile grant have been outweighed by the costs to their reputation.

But it is easier to criticise decile funding than to suggest an alternative. If the goal is equality the obvious solutions are draconian. The law could try to stop state schools raising any funds privately and forbid children attending any state school except their nearest.

The law could try. But repressive rules seldom produce lasting solutions. Education is a service of infinite value. No matter how well the state funds them, schools will always want to do more and most parents are happy to contribute. It is healthy that they are allowed to, and that they have a choice of schools their taxes provide.

The interests of the worse-off are seldom best solved by restricting the rights of everyone. Better solutions allow everyone to benefit from the success of the better-off. The inequalities evident in education do not appear to exist in comparable state-funded services such as health.

Governments put extra money into health services in low-income areas and yet it does not carry the stigma that it does in schools. We don't read of "white flight" from general medical practices in poorer parts of the city.

Nor, of course, does it happen in services provided by the private sector. There are no "poor" supermarkets or petrol stations in lower-income communities. Their standards are much the same everywhere. The secret to equality in commercial services is a reputable brand, which provides reassurance for customers and sustenance for providers.

The way to attract patronage back to low-decile schools may be to similarly associate them with schools that are well regarded. The Government is taking a step in this direction with its cash incentive for them to form clusters under an executive principal and to share leading teachers.

Decile funding is driving away too many of the pupils poor schools most need. The answer is not to keep them captive, it is to change the image of the school. Give it a prestigious makeover, let it ask a fee and watch its roll swell with pride.