How to get your school a better intake

The Guardian today is carrying a detailed study of admissions to church schools. It demonstrates beyond a doubt that these schools take a smaller proportion of pupils on free meals than other schools. The research goes beyond just comparing national data to analysing admissions at local authority and even postcode level.

In many ways this confirms what has been said many times. The Sutton Trust, giving evidence to the select committee said that “all the evidence suggests that those schools that have autonomous admissions are those that are most socially selective when compared to their localities.” That reminds us that it is not just church schools but other schools – academies and Foundation schools -that find ways of getting more favourable intakes.

What the Guardian article doesn’t do is explain how it’s done. So it is perhaps worth looking at some of the tricks of the trade. Not many schools are blatant as Thomas Telford. Its admission arrangements give no priority to looked after children, siblings or to pupils with medical needs. The Headmaster (sic) “will select students …  and in exercising his professional judgement will take into account the following…: those applicants most likely to benefit from the education on offer at the School and who have the strongest motivation to succeed”. Amongst other things, parents have to provide a copy of the child’s year 5 school report. A more flagrant breach of the requirement of the Admissions code that criteria are “reasonable, fair and objective” would be hard to imagine. Not surprisingly this school had 1% of its Year 11 pupils below Level 4 on entry and 1% had special needs. And as one of the last three City Technology Colleges, it is not legally bound by the Admissions code.

More common is the approach of Twyford Church of England. Here, as part of a complicated set of criteria, points are awarded for both the child and the parent’s church activities. Children can get points for Sunday school or church youth club membership. Parents can get them for everything from bell ringing to flower arranging, making the tea and cleaning the church. Apparently doing these things make you a better Christian and so more worthy of a place. This is an approach that the Adjudicator has specifically ruled out at Coloma School in Croydon but it’s still in use here. And as a result 52% of Year 11 pupils were at Level 5 or above at age 11!

Another trick is to manipulate your catchment area so as to include some leafy suburbs and reduce access to more deprived areas that are actually nearer to the school. This may be called allocating places by deanery or may involve maintaining an inner and an outer catchment area for the benefit of families prepared to make the effort to explore and get their children to more distant schools.

Then there’s the school which may have entirely normal criteria but which sends out very clear messages about what kind of pupil it wants. A classic of this kind is West London Free School.  So here “we cater for pupils of all abilities but we don’t offer any vocational or technical subjects”.  It expects every pupil to get at least 6 GCSEs at C and above and to do a sixth form course that will prepare them for a “good” university. It has no other ambitions for its pupils. So what should someone who wants an apprenticeship do? What should a potential car mechanic, electrician, plumber or hairdresser do? The answer clearly is, go somewhere else. So of course, WLFS’ intake is well above average for its area.

Not every church school gets up to these tricks. But all demand at a minimum a consistent record of weekly church attendance confirmed by a priest’s reference. That will mean to begin with that children with parents who don’t have those middle class skills of joining organisations and planning ahead won’t get a look in.

So what is to be done? Writing a code which will outlaw every kind of sharp practice is probably impossible. So what about creating in law an expectation that every school has an intake that is representative of its area? If it doesn’t, give the Adjudicator or a local School Commissioner the duty to impose remedies – maybe ability banding, maybe a quota of pupils with free meals – so as to ensure all pupils really have fair access to every school .

Meanwhile, there is now the right for anyone to report a school to the adjudicator. People who are committed to fairness need to start using this power to at least drive out of the system the most blatant abuses.



3 Comments on “How to get your school a better intake”

  1. As the ex-head of a Catholic school I have more sympathy with the writer’s comments that one might expect and the Guardian article does cause me a lot of concern. But on a point of fact the statement

    ‘Not every church school gets up to these tricks. But all demand at a minimum a consistent record of weekly church attendance confirmed by a priest’s reference. ‘

    is simply wrong. I was head of a large Catholic comprehensive school for 18 years. Our admission policy (for the first priority) simply required that the child be a baptised catholic. We did not use priest’s references . This was the case in many catholic schools in my region – probably most.

    • johnebolt says:

      Good to hear. I’ve seen many schools that are much more demanding but I’m glad that’s not everywhere. It would be good if that was the normal practice in all church schools. John

  2. trevor fisher says:

    I suspect that the practices are widespread, knowing telford I cannot see how the thomas telford school can have a one per cent free school meal intake. However the school adjudicator has been neutralised by acadmies having the right to control their admissions policies, so any fair system has to be run by a local body

    If this has become widespread however it is likely that this was happening under Labour and one of the few things Ed Balls was good on was admissions, so something when wrong. I would suggest contacting Comprehensive future to take on the implications of this, they are the experts.

    trevor fisher