The transition to secondary school is rarely conceptualised as an important influence in maintaining and contributing to wider processes of social exclusion in the inner city. This article argues that the seeds of social exclusion are sown in under-resourced, struggling inner-city schooling, and their germination is found in class practices, particularly the exclusionary secondary school choice practices of the middle classes. Drawing on Jordan's conceptualisation of the choices available to parents in the new UK educational markets, we examine middle-class strategies of 'voting with the feet', exit and self-exclusion, plus the more covert practice of 'exchanging addresses'. The article examines how these processes have implications for the construction of a polarized market where some schools are 'demonized' and others 'idealized' along class, racial and ethnic lines. It also raises questions about what it might mean for the mainly working-class children who have no choice but to go to such demonized schools.