Fiona Millar says we need an admissions system that promotes equity and fair access – which means reform is needed. This is from the Guardian…
Every parent knows and understands the subtle division that starts to take place as children approach reception or years 5 and 6: the house moves, the church-going and private tuition, those difficult conversations about what is “best for my child” – coincidentally the title of a film I made on this subject shortly after the original Guardian piece appeared.
And while it is true that in some parts of the country this is mitigated by lack of realistic choice, in many other areas admissions increasingly contribute to the complex hierarchy that makes English schools among the most segregated in the world.
Academies aren’t always the worst offenders. Many have more comprehensive, diverse and challenging intakes than neighbouring schools that either select by ability or faith, or are gifted a favourable catchment area.
But, as the then Chief Adjudicator of Schools admitted to me in 2003, as more schools become their own admissions authorities it is more likely that they will “drift to the posh”. It is often the quickest route to league table advantage.
And academies and free schools have been given extra, unnecessary freedoms. They are only obliged to comply with the Admissions Code via their funding agreements, which the coalition has said can be varied to allow effective opt-outs from what is obligatory for other, maintained, schools.
So it is likely that over time, and as more schools convert, the problem of subtle selection and exclusion will persist and parents will increasingly be required to navigate the sort of complex local landscapes that always benefit the knowing and well-resourced.
This government, and the last, claimed to want an admissions system that promoted equity and fair access, and allocated places clearly and objectively, so that parents could understand their chances of success. The trouble is that action never matched the rhetoric and reform is still needed in two specific areas.
The first concerns the type of admissions criteria that are permissible. The big beasts in this particular jungle are not really academies, but the grammar and faith schools. But until someone has the courage to take on those mammoth vested interests, inequalities will continue.
Less politically contentious might be tougher, more comprehensive regulation. Since Mr Gove is in a mood for U-turns, I would also suggest that no school should have the power to opt out of the Admissions Code. There should be a regulatory framework that applies to all schools, and all children – including those of the founders – without exception.
But compliance with the code still rests on the willingness of individuals, local authorities or other schools to complain about non-compliant or bad practice.
The Office of the Schools Adjudicator doesn’t have the powers needed to police the system properly, and with the decimation of local authority capacity and influence, it is not clear who intervenes on behalf of local people if no one complains. In some areas of this convoluted web of accountability, parents’ only right to redress is via the secretary of state, who is now responsible for several thousand schools.
The Academies Commission idea of reports to the OSA detailing the social background of each child who applies, and of each child admitted to every school, is a good one.
I would add the applicants’ prior attainment to that mix and a “navigability” rating, to spell out the obstacles faced by parents in areas where nearly every secondary school now has its own different, often impenetrable, entry criteria.
But it isn’t altogether clear what should and could happen next. Unless an investigation follows into why and how some schools manage to engineer themselves radically more favourable intakes than their neighbours, with a clear action plan to both rectify that and give every child an equal chance, the drift to the posh could become an avalanche.