DISADVANTAGED PUPILS AND ADMISSIONS
Government looks again at the Admissions Code
But how do you stop selection?
The Government apparently intends to rewrite the school admissions code. Ministers believe that the code for school admissions, which has legal force, is unnecessarily long and difficult for parents to navigate if they wish to mount an appeal.
There is a strong suspicion that the way admissions are currently handled does little to help our most disadvantaged pupils or to progress the social mobility agenda.
According to Barnardos (Report-Unlocking the Gates-2010) half of all pupils entitled to free school meals, are concentrated in a quarter of secondary schools and if you look at the top secondary schools (on a measure of getting ﬁve GCSEs at A* to C including English and maths) they take on average only ﬁve per cent of pupils entitled to free school meals, less than half the national average .It seems accepted that widening access to good neighbourhood schools has a critical role to play in narrowing the opportunity gap in education.
Since the Education Reform Act 1988, parents have had a degree of choice over which school their child attends, also known as ‘parental preference’. However, the system for determining school admissions is complex, particularly when schools are oversubscribed .Good schools of course are all oversubscribed, but few are able to expand to accommodate the demand for places. Although most parents get places in the school of their choice, a significant minority don’t. If you look at London, a third of parents did not get their first choice secondary school for this autumn. Figures from the Pan London Admissions Board (PLAB) show just 65% of families got a place at their preferred school. In the London borough of Kensington and Chelsea, some 15 per cent of children failed to gain places at their parents preferred schools – believed to be the highest failure rate in England. And nearly 40% of children in Westminster, 39% in Southend and 38% in Barnet will miss out on their parents first preference this September. In total more than 79,000 children missed out on a place at their first-choice secondary school for this September,
The complexity of the admissions process is acknowledged which is why the previous government, in 2005, announced plans to develop a national network of Choice Advisers. However, a recent evaluation of the initiative found great variation in the provision of Choice Advice: some services did little more than answer the queries of self-referring families about how the admissions system worked, whereas others specifically targeted disadvantaged parents, providing them with intensive support. Given the scale of local authority cuts many believe that this service will suffer in many areas.
Local authorities act as the admissions authority for the majority of schools, but certain types of school act as their own admissions authority. The recent growth in foundation schools and academies means that there are increasing numbers of schools which act as their own admissions authority. In January 1988, 15 per cent of schools were their own admission authority, by January 2009, that figure had almost tripled to 42 per cent. and with the expansion of Academies and Free schools this proportion will increase over time. Schools that are their own admissions authority are subject to the School Admissions Code, which was rewritten by the last Government. It is designed to ensure they allow fair access for all. However there is some evidence that many of the best performing schools are more socially selective. A report by the Sutton Trust in October 2008 found that 74 out of the 100 most socially selective schools in England were their own admission authority. In particular, voluntary aided schools (typically those with a religious focus) seemed to take disproportionately fewer pupils entitled to free school meals, compared to their local population. It is true that the best state schools tend to have less than their local authority average of pupils with SEN and on FSM. This is hardly surprising-if the inputs are good, the outputs tend to be good too.
A study by West A, Barham E, and Hind A (2009) Secondary school admissions in England: Policy and practice www.risetrust.org.uk/Secondary.pdf found that even following the new admissions code there is still not 100 per cent compliance, particularly amongst schools which are their own admissions authority. The study identified a number of ways in which schools were acting in accordance probably with the letter, but not the spirit, of the new code – operating admissions systems that are so complex and difficult to understand that they may deter less well-educated and confident parents from applying. Schools also ask for additional information and use other techniques that are perfectly legal but might aid selection without leaving evidence in the form of a paper trail.
And this really seems to be the challenge. How do you stop schools selecting when they are doing it covertly? Tightening up the admissions code might help a bit. But remember much thought went in to drafting the current code which has only just been adopted . And what do you do about identifying schools that operate within the letter but not the sprit of the Code and, once identified , how do you put a stop to unfair practice?