Reform in the wings but will it make a difference?
With school admissions to the best schools, as things stand and despite a new stricter admissions code, the odds are stacked heavily against children from non-privileged backgrounds.
They are far less likely to attend the top performing schools, and subsequently often do not receive the support and expertise that allows them to fulfil their academic potential. It is equally true that schools with a disproportionate number of children from poorer homes face an uphill struggle to raise attainment ,against the odds. To get around this, the Sutton Trusts recent report Worlds Apart social variation among schools, by Professor Alan Smithers and Pamela Robinson of the Centre for Education and Employment, University of Buckingham recommended there should be wider introduction of admissions ballots, or random allocation, to decide who gets places in over-subscribed schools, when other selection criteria have been met. At the same time, the report recommends that successful schools should be allowed more freedom to expand where possible. . Some six years ago a Social Market Foundation report (School Admissions: A Report of the Social Market Foundation Commission 2004) made very similar proposals, equally persuasively.
We also know from a number of studies that schools are quite adept at appearing to follow the admissions code, while doing nothing of the sort, with many of the best state schools practising some form of selection(basically ensuring that they limit as much as possible the number of pupils on free school meals and or those categorised as SEN )
The Government intends to tighten up the admissions code but it is not at all clear that this will make much difference as selection tends to be covert rather than overt leaving no paper trail. Although 83% of parents secured their first-preference school in this year’s admissions round that still means that, nationally, nearly one in five parents failed to achieve their first choice of school. It is worse in cities, with one in three missing out on their first choice in London and Birmingham. In some local authority areas, only 50% of parents manage to get their children into their first-preference schools. In 2008-09, more than 88,000 appeals were made by parents who were unhappy with the schools that had been allocated to them, and in 22% of cases the appeals were allowed. Nick Gibb the schools Minister wants to ease the burden on local authorities. He said on 13 December “ Rather than their having to engage in activities such as setting up admissions forums or providing the schools adjudicator with an annual report because central Government says that they must, we want them to concentrate on making the admissions process as fair and straightforward as possible.” When schools are over-subscribed, the current system allows admission authorities to set their own criteria to decide place allocations, provided that they comply with the school admissions code and admissions legislation. The use of catchment areas is a popular method, but there are others, including prioritisation based on travel distance, siblings-and feeder primary schools. The admissions code states explicitly that when catchment areas are used, they must always reflect the community served by the school and must never disadvantage particular social groups by, for example, excluding certain housing estates or addresses. Since September this year local authorities have been required to co-ordinate all in-year applications and offers as a result of changes made by the previous Government. Apparently this is causing problems and has been the subject of numerous complaints from parents. Gibb says that this will be looked at as part of the admissions review. Whether another review and a ‘simplified’ system that is supposed to result from it will make much difference and will be seen to be fairer than the current system remains to be seen. There may be a simple way to approach admissions but it is a complex area – and a simple code might not end up being a fair one.