Category Archives: admissions



Look at the facilitating subjects-they do help


Its worth reminding ourselves, just occasionally, that Universities are independent and autonomous organisations and so are responsible for their own admissions decisions. The social mobility and access agendas, and the work of the access regulator OFFA can sometimes muddy the water on this issue.

It has been made clear by Russell Group universities (ie the self-appointed elite) that if you want to maximise your chances of admission to their universities they rate some qualifications as more rigorous and robust than others. The term  Facilitating subjects  is now often used when discussing admissions to HEIs.

Facilitating subjects are a group of subjects that the Russell group of universities identified in their Informed Choices publication that are usually considered to be helpful and/or required for particular courses at their universities. Informed Choices says that pupils need ‘ to have clear information about how the subjects that they choose to study in the sixth form or at college  can affect their options at university and their chances in life. That way, they can make well-informed decisions.’

Such openness and transparency by universities can, it is thought, help applicants and advisers understand the prior qualifications needed or preferred by applicants to specific courses.

Informed Choices says.. ‘some university courses may require you to have studied a specific subject prior to entry, others may  not. However, there are some subjects that are required more often than others. These subjects are sometimes referred to as facilitating subjects’.

Subjects that can be viewed as ‘facilitating’ subjects are:

• Mathematics and Further Mathematics

• English (Literature)

• Physics

• Biology

• Chemistry

• Geography

• History

• Languages (Classical and Modern)


Informed Choices -a Russell Group Guide to Making Decisions about Post 16 Education-  2012



Latest Sutton Trust report suggests best state schools are socially selective


Most Schools have control of their own admissions process, though they have to abide by a national admissions “code”. Significantly, selection on the basis of aptitude is permitted in certain circumstances. (see below) Guidance on this is set out in chapter 2 of the Schools Admissions Code.

Admission authorities for maintained schools must comply with the Code. Local authorities are the admission authorities for community and voluntary controlled schools, unless the function has been delegated to the school governing body. For foundation schools (including trust schools), voluntary-aided schools and academies, governing bodies are the admission authority.

Grammar schools, of course, all 164 of them, which are state schools, have long been able to select their pupils. Pupils must sit an 11 plus exam. Around 5% of all pupils in state secondary schools are currently educated  in grammar schools .

So what about selection by aptitude? There are two permitted forms of selection by aptitude. Under section 100 of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, where the school used such selection in 1997-98 and has continued to use it since then without significant changes. And under section 102, where schools may select up to 10% of their intake on the basis of aptitude in their specialist area(s) provided that the admission arrangements do not involve any test of ability or any test designed to elicit the pupil’s aptitude for other subjects.

The designated subjects where specialist schools are able to select by aptitude are:

 physical education or sport, or one or more sports;

 the performing arts, or any one or more of those arts;

 the visual arts, or any one or more of those arts;

 modern foreign languages, or any such language;

 design and technology, and ICT (but only schools that already selected for those subjects before the 2008 school year may continue to do so).18

But, in  practice, very few specialist schools select pupils on the basis of aptitude for the specialism. And specialist schools are  for the most part not really specialist in a meaningful sense-just look at the qualifications their pupils take and the number of ‘specialist’ teachers they employ for their chosen  ‘specialism’.

There has long been a perception that best performing schools are involved in covert selection. The incentive to select pupils is clear. The brighter your pupils and the wealthier and better educated  their  parents ,the  higher  the school is likely to be  in  the league tables  .So there is a strong incentive for schools to engage in subtle forms of selection. This was highlighted recently by an investigation by the Academies commission led by Christine Gilbert, the former head of Ofsted. The commission said it had heard examples of some academies “willing to take a ‘low road’ approach to school improvement by manipulating admissions rather than by exercising strong leadership”. It said it had received numerous submissions suggesting that “academies are finding methods to select covertly”, such as holding social events for prospective parents or asking them to fill in lengthy forms when applying for a place.

“Such practices can enable schools to select pupils from more privileged families where parents have the requisite cultural capital to complete the [form] in ways that will increase their child’s chances,” the report said .

It warned  that as more schools  become academies, in charge of their own admissions, “there is a risk that admissions ‘game playing’ may be extended further”.

The Sutton Trust in its latest research report claims that   ‘England’s highest performing comprehensive schools and academies are significantly more socially selective than the average state school nationally and other schools in their own localities’. It continues ‘ The average rate of free school meal (FSM) eligibility and uptake at the top 500 comprehensives – all have more than 69% of pupils achieving five good GCSEs in 2012 – is just below half the national average figure, 7.6% compared to 16.5%, and 15.2% in their respective local authorities. There are nearly 3,000 comprehensive schools nationally. FSM is a measure of the overall social selectivity of a school.

95 per cent of the top 500 comprehensives have a smaller proportion of their pupils on free school meals than their local areas, including almost two thirds (64%) which are unrepresentative of their local authority area, with gaps of five or more percentage points.’

The report also shows that there is a big difference in the social background of pupils attending good schools that have converted to academy status (‘converter academies’) and those academies that have been established with sponsors to improve results (‘sponsored academies’). The 186 converter academies within the top 500 have significantly lower FSM intakes, averaging just 5.8%. Schools in the top 500 are also more likely to be faith schools or single sex schools than the national average.

Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the Sutton Trust, said: “Who gets admitted to these schools matters because they are the ones most likely to attend the best universities and most likely to succeed in the top professions. They open the door to social mobility. The schools in this study, by and large, are not using forms of overt selection. But they are exercising a form of social selection.

Lampl continued:“The bottom line is, how good a school you go to depends on your parents’ income. We have one of the most socially segregated school systems in the developed world, an outlier with only 4 out of 29 advanced countries having a worse record, according to the OECD last year.”

The solution, the Sutton Trust believes, lies in the use a system of ballots, particularly in urban areas, so a proportion of places would be  allocated randomly – or by applying  banding across the range of abilities to achieve a genuinely balanced intake.

Fair-banding admissions schemes are often seen as a way of breaking the middle-class dominance in the best-performing state secondaries since they are thought to prevent affluent parents from monopolising places by paying a premium to live in their catchment areas

Banding works in different ways    But ,typically ,11 year-olds, applying for school places, sit an IQ-based “attainment test” and are then divided into five to nine ability groups. The same number of children from each ability group are then given places at the school.(Dunraven school in Streatham  introduced this type of banding in the 1990s- It puts children in five different bands and gives priority to those children who are in care or in foster care. )

Policy makers believe in the right for parents to choose a school for their child and that this is an important principle informing policy. But,with one vital caveat. It must be made to work in a way that is transparent and fair for all families, not just the wealthy. This is where it can become problematic. Given the strong incentives for schools to select and the difficulty in policing admissions policies, and admissions by property price, some believe that there should be ballots .Others, including the IPPR, think that it might  be better for admissions to be administered by an impartial body such as a local school commissioner. This, the IPPR feels, would prevent accusations of unfair play, save  headteachers from endless rounds of appeals, and free schools up to focus on the core business of teaching and learning


The Sunday Times pointed out that only 5.7% of pupils at the London  (Catholic) Oratory in Fulham, where two of Tony Blair’s sons were  educated, and where Nick Clegg MP, the deputy PM, is sending his son,  are eligible for free school meals, a marker of low family income and of a school’s social mix. The average for England’s 3,000 state secondaries is- 16.5%.



Some criticisms-but are they justified?


There are a number of criticisms being levelled at Academies. Lets look at four.

First, they amount to privatising the state education system.  George Monbiot, the privately educated left wing commentator, recently made this claim in R4s Any Questions?. The normal definition of privatisation is that it involves transfer of government services or assets to the private sector. Wikipedia puts it as follows ‘the process of transferring ownership of a business, enterprise, agency, public service or property from the public sector (the state or government) to the private sector (businesses that operate for a private profit) or to private non-profit organizations.’ So does this apply to Academies? Clearly, not. Academies are not owned by private sector companies, nor are any of their assets. In ,fact they are required to be charities by law. Private companies can ,of course, now  support the Trusts that run Academies, just as they were able to under the last Labour government. Indeed private companies can also support local education authorities (Islington /CEA) too.  But the body running an academy school  has to be a  charitable trust. One is tempted to think that that the Government might as well privatise the system  given they are accused as having done  so already, so in a political sense the issue has already been discounted. To claim these supply side reforms amount  to privatisation is nonsense on stilts.

But Academies are selective aren’t they? Well, this is not quite so cut and dried. Quite a few state schools have always had some form of selection. Church or faith schools may ask for confirmation of attendance at a relevant place of worship. This is a form of selection and they have been accused of not taking a proper share of pupils eligible for FSM(See this weeks Guardian story). There are also grammar schools, and, this   is something of a secret,   quite a few other schools that select a proportion of their pupils on the basis of academic ability, award places on the basis of an entrance exam or a selection test. Specialist schools that award a percentage of their places (10%) to pupils with an aptitude for certain subjects may use some form of assessment or audition where appropriate. State boarding schools may interview  a child to assess their suitability to be a boarder (interviewing is not allowed for admission into any other type of state-funded school-although there are ways of getting round this-ie having school  open days which provides the school a chance to meet informally with parents and children.) As far as academies are concerned (around 50% of all secondary schools will  have academy status by the end of this parliament)  the Academies Act 2010 allows schools that already select all or some of their pupils on the basis of ability to continue to do so. It does not provide for existing academies to become selective. When a school becomes an academy, the academy trust will become the admission authority. For some schools, such as foundation and voluntary aided schools, this will mean little change, but for community schools and voluntary controlled schools the academy will need to manage its own admissions process. This will involve periodic consultation, and regularly publishing the academy’s admission arrangements but they still remain subject to the Admissions Code. Indeed the academy funding agreement requires them to be non-selective. Remember most academies started their lives providing education in disadvantaged areas. Most have high numbers of FSM pupils, and many use banding to achieve fairer intakes than many comprehensives with middle class catchments. And you can criticise Michael Gove for a few things but  surely not his commitment to disadvantaged pupils and their education which is one of  the key priorities that inform government reforms.

But what about  their  accountability? Surely without the overarching  Local Authority responsible for the school, accountability is lost. Pause for a second, and think how many local authorities have allowed badly underperforming schools to continue teaching pupils year in ,year out while either failing to intervene or intervening ineffectively? The traditional local democratic accountability regime, which can be termed ‘long’ accountability which allows officials who have presided over failure to stay in place, regardless of local election results, is hardly a panacea.  Take a look at the academy funding agreements. Through funding agreements academies are accountable to the elected national, rather than local government.   It is true ,that with so many schools directly accountable to the Secretary of State  (over 1500 schools are  now academies), there is an interesting debate to be had around the notion of local school commissioners, providing additional accountability  (which the IPPR  think tank has been looking at ),  which is on-going.  But the Ofsted accountability regime is firmly in place  and the  newly revamped  league tables  give a clearer idea of how schools are actually performing, than they did before.  And  academies are now subject to the Freedom of Information Act, which means that it is much easier to find out what they are up to and what exams their pupils are sitting.    So ,  although academies are ‘autonomous’,  they are accountable, with   accountability working at several levels . It’s also worth noting that academies are not that autonomous and very much remain part of the state system-though  their funding agreements.  They  certainly don’t have the kind of independence from politicians and officials enjoyed by schools in the independent sector.

But are academies still focused on the most disadvantaged?  Labour Academies were focused in the most disadvantaged areas and the Coalition government is now allowing outstanding schools in wealthier areas to become academies.   Some including Ed Balls argued that this was a  corruption of the original idea behind academies .  But critics forget that not all the Academies started under Labour were in the most deprived areas. Indeed, Ed Balls who gave the impression of being ambivalent about academies, (like Gordon Brown,) when he was education secretary gave academy status, as Conor Ryan has pointed out, to two highly successful secondaries that wanted to help improve weaker schools. Indeed this is an area where the new, successful academies can play a significant role in the future.

And then  there is  the issue of how academies are using their autonomy. Are they being  more innovative than peer schools that are not academies   and personalising education, making good use of technology, providing a rounded education  for  their children perhaps encouraging more positive attitudes resilience and the development of non-cognitive skills ? The suspicion is that rather a lot of schools converted not because they were in pursuit of new freedoms but they wanted the extra cash. This goes against the grain. Supply side reforms alone will not transform our system.  Structural changes  need to go hand in hand with improved teaching at the chalk face and a move away from teaching to the test  combined with  new cutting edge thinking about what education is actually for.   Interestingly the Reform think tank is shortly to publish a report on this very issue and the extent to which academies are using their new freedoms.

Note:   Total number of secondary school places in England                  3,608,970

Total Number of (wholly ie Grammar) selective school places               161,660

Percentage of places in selective schools                                                          4.5%

The three authorities with the highest percentage of places in  selective schools are Buckinghamshire 41%, Trafford 40% and Slough 37.%


Note 2

1,580 Schools are now academies

1,243 Schools have converted to academy status since the election, of which 578 are outstanding

37 are sponsoring 44 academies

47% of all secondary schools are academies

53% of all outstanding secondary schools are academies.

Source: Hansard 6 March



Independents, unsurprisingly, dominate


Professor Les Ebdon, despite the objections of many Tory MPs, looks likely to be the new head of OFFA. Tories believe that he will push universities too hard to admit under qualified state school pupils or, to put it another way, indulge in social engineering. Ebdon believes that we should deal with the world as it is, not as we would like it to be, shorthand for- the disadvantaged get poor qualifications so universities should reduce entry qualifications  for them  and instead spot their potential.  Not a good idea runs the counter argument , spotting potential is not easy   and in any case we have to compete with the best in the world, so dumbing down probably  isn’t such  a good idea .  Better to raise the quality of pupils coming out of state schools, even if this takes time. Rob Wilson MP , giving his views representing  the Fair Access to University Group, says that  intervention to improve standards at the pre-university secondary school stage is the best way to improve fairness, recognise talent and ensure that students, regardless of background, are able to access top institutions. It seems likely that OFFA will now find itself under political attack.

43 % of graduates from Ebdon’s  own university (Bedfordshire) have no job six months after graduating, so indications are that he has no  access to a silver bullet  to improve social mobility  or to ease  access to good jobs (or any job ,come to think of it!).     And doubtless more pressure will now be put on Oxbridge to admit more pupils from state schools and to invest more in their already substantial outreach programmes. On top of which they will need to offer remedial programmes for undergraduates in the first year to get them  up to the standard required to cope with  their courses(  and, in the process ,increase the costs of their courses, so reducing the number of places available-how much sense does that make?).

So, which schools generally have the best record in getting pupils into Oxbridge? Here is the top ten based on the latest available figures:

North London Collegiate School                       (40) (42%)

St Paul’s Girls’ School                                       (40) (42%)

Westminster School                                         (50) (39%)

Magdalen College School                                 (25) (32%)

Haberdashers’ Aske’s School for Girls              (30) (29%)

The Stephen Perse Foundation                        (20) (29%)

St Paul’s School                                             (45) (27%)

Guildford High School                                     (25) (26%

City of London School for Girls                       (20) (26%)

Wycombe Abbey School                                  (20) (25%)

There isn’t a single non-selective state school in the top hundred .42% of the end of KS4 pupils in both North London Collegiate and St Pauls Girls gained entry to Oxbridge, which is extraordinary. Eton, for the record, sent 60 boys to Oxbridge representing 22% of their cohort. Interestingly, though, increasing numbers of pupils from the top independents are choosing Ivy League Universities ahead of Oxbridge.  So, will Oxbridge be in a position to compete at all with the Ivy League in the future, given the access  agenda?   A question that Ebdon   may need to answer when he takes up his new job.

(Source Deposited Papers-Parliament 2012)- 2006 GCSE cohort progressing to Oxbridge 2010 


Rebecca Allen and Simon Burghes of the Centre for Market and Public Organisation raise an important question on their blog regarding whether or not teachers and other school staff should be given priority when it comes to admissions to schools where they are employed. The admissions code is currently under review following consultation. Paragraph 1.33 of the code says: “If admissions authorities decide to give priority to children of staff, they must set out clearly in their admission arrangements how they will define staff and on what basis children will be prioritised.” This, Allen points out, suggests that admissions authorities are to be allowed to prioritise the children of staff, reversing the policy of recent Admissions Codes. On the face of it one has some sympathy for teachers wanting their children to be in the school where they teach. It makes their lives much easier for one and allows them to keep a close eye on their child’s education. One group very likely to be included in most definitions of “staff” are teachers. For those teachers with children, this will add a new aspect to their decision on which school to seek a job at. Like many other parents, teachers will be keen for their children to attend high-performing schools. Following the White Paper “The Importance of Teaching”, one of the leading education policy issues is how to attract  particularly effective teachers into the more challenging schools. Research evidence does not tell us whether teachers who are parents are on average more effective teachers, but there are two points to make:
This policy change will differentially increase the flow of applicants to high-performing schools. If the Headteachers of those schools are skilled at spotting effective teachers, then simply having access to a much bigger applicant pool will raise the average effectiveness of teachers  hired at those schools. They are less likely to be novices, which is one of the few clear findings on teacher effectiveness, so in that sense alone teachers who are parents are likely to be more effective. Given that, claim Allen and Burghes, this policy change is very likely to work against any efforts to attract effective teachers to challenging schools, and thus set back the Government’s stated educational policy goals of narrowing the outcome gap between affluent and disadvantaged pupils. The proposed code change could also complicate disciplinary procedures because firing a teacher from a school would also have implications for her/his children. This is likely to make it even less likely that headteachers will engage in robust performance management. They write ‘We know that any work-based privileges that are specific to particular establishments tend to cement people in that job and reduce turnover. Such privileges include health insurance, pension rights, and so on. This reduces labour mobility and typically will make the labour market less efficient. This proposed change will have the same effect in the teacher labour market as teachers will be less willing to move as it will disrupt their children’s education.’ They make a compelling argument but if you are a  parent and teacher you might not share their view.



The publication of Lord Browne’s Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance marked the beginning of an intense period of policy debate about higher education which is not yet concluded. The Government is shortly to launch its delayed White Paper (probably  this week ) amid concerns that the current funding model, with most universities charging the top rate for tuition fees, is unsustainable and cannot be covered by the Treasury .

The introduction, then raising of Tuition fees was always going to bring a spotlight onto the educational offer at our universities. Middle Class parents often support their children financially, either fully or in part, at university to stop them getting into debt and therefore take more interest in what their children actually do at these institutions.  Recent research from Edge, the charity dedicated to raising the status of practical education,   found that Britain’s middle income parents of children aged 11-18 years old have changed their education aspirations for their child, with many saying university doesn’t provide the best return on investment.   Short terms, ‘reading weeks’, (a modern trend that sees Departments effectively closing for a week mid-term) reduced teaching time ,less  one to one tuition,  along with   fewer seminars , assignments   and lectures leave the impression of  a poorer overall offer and  some parents and students  clearly perceive declining standards .  Certainly parents who have been to university  compare their experiences with those of their children and can spot the  glaring  differences.The focus on research and the funding tied to research has meant that most universities see teaching students as a second order priority. Liberal Arts and other more flexible courses in US universities are attracting   more of our best home grown students. Yale has seen UK student enrolments double in five years, with other Ivy League colleges seeing similar increases.  Rapid Expansion in university places in the 1980s and 1990s has not been matched over time by funding, the effects of which cannot be concealed.   Some students have demonstrated against this perceived decline and the quality of their courses. Student complaints against universities in England and Wales have reached record levels according to the higher education ombudsman’s (Office of the Independent Adjudicator) annual report. The independent adjudicator’s office says complaints rose by 33 % last year. The OIA received more than 2,000 enquiries last year and a record 1,341 complaints . Around half were found not be justified, although there has been a small increase in justified complaints. The OIA found that two universities-Southampton and Westminster were non-compliant ie they failed to comply with  the adjudicators rulings.

It is clear that   the some universities are finding it difficult to adjust to a changing environment and pay too  little attention  to the  teaching and support they give to their students. The goal posts have shifted. and they are  now operating in a world that requires greater transparency and accountability, both in terms of admissions policy , the quality of teaching and course content and the employability of their  students.


A new Admissions Code will be introduced

But  will guidance, stop covert selection?

The debate over the new Admissions Code is beginning. Parental choice is a keystone of the government’s education policy, and demand for a high-quality school place outstrips supply. Put simply there are too few good schools to go around. The good schools tend to be colonised by pushy middle class parents prepared to pay a Premium on their House Price to be in the catchment area of a good school. In cities competition is particularly fierce: a third of secondary-school age children in London failed to get their first choice of school this year. The Secretary of State is keen for a new Admissions Code, though Ed Balls introduced a new one not so long ago which has only just taken effect. Gove is determined somehow to ensure that disadvantaged pupils can access the best schools. One in six of England’s state secondary schools has now broken away from the control of local authorities to become an “academy”, and their numbers are expected to double in the coming year or so. The situation is made more complex because most faith schools act as their own admissions authority. Academies too are exempt from their council’s admissions policies, though they remain subject to the national code and so, for example, cannot select by academic prowess. Parents who set up state-funded “free” schools face the same restrictions and cannot favour the founders’ children under the existing rules. But as the Economist says (5 May) ‘Giving such schools a bit more freedom to manage their admissions would make sense—it should help them to build a clear identity and thus a stronger esprit de corps. But squaring this with Mr Gove’s promise to ensure that more parents get their first choice of school will be a difficult trade-off. At best his revised rule book seems likely to end up only a little less complex than its predecessors.’ Gove will find that simply changing the Admissions guidance and simplifying it will not necessarily make it fairer particularly for the most disadvantaged pupils. The fact that the current Admissions Code runs to over a hundred pages is not because some bureaucrat was getting paid by the word. It’s because it’s a very complex area and some schools have in the past (including Faith schools) devised canny ways of ensuring that they can still select pupils without leaving any evidence in their wake. Some favour a lottery system, which is probably fairer than most other systems but it seems that this is not on the cards as it too has its critics.

It remains a fact that the best state schools  are usually, at least partially, selective in that they accept less than their respective  local authority average of pupils with special needs, on free school meals or with English as  their  second language.When a school  argues that it is successful because of its ethos, superior teaching, leadership etc that may  well be the case as some schools really do add value, but cast a beady eye on the number of its pupils on SEN, FSM and English as  their second language before you accept such claims at face value!