School Admissions should be part of Labour’s campaign for a fairer society.Posted: January 17, 2015
A central theme of Labour’s 2015 campaign is the idea that our country is increasingly dominated by the privileged and by powerful interest groups at the expense of the rest of us. This can be, for example, energy companies overcharging, employers imposing zero hour contracts or private landlords abusing their position. The result is that the privileged and the wealthy increasingly gain and more and more people find it ever harder to get a fair hearing.
Yesterday’s report of the Schools Adjudicator shows clearly that school admissions should be up there as one of the big rip-offs currently operating in our society. Her report can be found at https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/393886/OSA_Annual_Report_2014.pdf. The adjudicator only deals with the tip of the iceberg – with those cases where people are sufficiently determined and angry to follow a bureaucratic solution through to the end. This year, the number of objections considered jumped by nearly 70%. Clearly the message is not getting through to the schools that need to listen.
The adjudicator is clear that local authority criteria for maintained schools are almost always clear, simple and fair. The problems are much the same as in previous years and are overwhelmingly down to schools that are their own admission authority. The key issues according to the adjudicator are:
• Schools not consulting on and publishing admission arrangements at the right time
• Sixth form Admissions are too often difficult to find, lack an admission number, do not include oversubscription criteria and have application forms that request information prohibited by the Code – so schools can pick and choose who they want to take.
• Schools that are their own admission authority often request prohibited information in their supplementary information forms – the back door to selecting those whose faces fit.
• Admission arrangements for too many schools that are their own admission authority are unnecessarily complex. The arrangements appear to be more likely to enable the school to choose which children to admit rather than simply having oversubscription criteria
• The practice of some primary schools of giving priority for admission to the reception year to children who have attended particular nursery provision has again been found to be unfair to other local children
Paragraphs 60 to 62 of the report paint a vivid picture of the minefield that parents have to negotiate. There can be “numerous oversubscription criteria and sometimes sub-categories within them; different categories of places; more than one catchment area; feeder schools; tens of points available and needed to gain priority; banding and therefore tests to be taken; aptitude assessment and several faith-based criteria.”
Requirements at some faith-based schools “require a parent to be well organised and study the arrangements carefully, sometimes several years before applying for a place, to ensure that their child will have a realistic chance of gaining a place at the school.”
The effect of all this is becoming increasingly clear. Even amongst so-called comprehensive schools, Sutton Trust research has shown that those with the best results take far fewer disadvantaged pupils than they should. In other words they aren’t necessarily best at teaching – just best at manipulating their admissions. Similarly the Fair Admissions campaign has highlighted the shocking level of socio-economic segregation to be found in many schools – many but by no means all faith schools.
Defenders of this state of affairs regularly take refuge in the claim that it’s all about where people live – well-off parents buy houses near good schools. Sometimes this even leads to the ridiculous claim that grammar school selection is fairer because children come from a wider area – ignoring the obvious fact that hardly any disadvantaged children get into grammar schools by any route. The adjudicator’s report spells out clearly that housing is not the only issue. Too many schools are driving a coach and horses through the admissions system in order to secure an advantage for themselves.
It will not be enough just to talk about tightening the Admissions Code. At present, no one has the job of looking pro-actively at admission systems and at the outcomes of those systems. A system that only reacts when complaints are made is not good enough – it wouldn’t stop most bad landlords and most bad employers and it won’t catch many non-compliant schools.
It needs to be a key responsibility of the Director of School Standards to make sure that admissions are really fair in their area. If necessary they should be able to take over the admissions function from schools that don’t recruit an intake that is representative of their area. No doubt there will be a row. Expect the Mail to weigh in on the side of so-called good schools as they struggle to retain their privileged position. Expect those who benefit – like Blair, Clegg, Gove and probably Cameron – to join in.
But we have to recognise that this is one of the many ways in which things are rigged in favour of the already privileged. And also that a system so socially and economically segregated produces worse results than one that is open and fair to all – all the international evidence confirms this. All the evidence says that it is time to take this issue on.