Some schools attract more applicants than they have places. They have to select which of the applicants to accept and which to reject.
They are required to adopt, publish and administer admission criteria which are objective and reasonable: they can give priority to children who live closest to the school, live in a defined catchment area, have siblings already at the school or, in the case of aided schools, are members of a particular church or religion.
But even those criteria will, if unregulated over time, result in priority being given to children from privileged backgrounds, so the criteria will need to be even more rigorously applied. The school becomes yet more selective, more elitist, or higher performing.
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The result can be areas where the pupils of some schools were mostly black, Asian or from ethnic minorities and other schools nearby are predominantly white. In other areas, very high performing schools sit alongside schools that have been struggling for years to produce good results. Sometimes a struggling school can take action to improve results, and thereby attract more pupils, but many cannot overcome the disadvantage of serving areas where families have low expectations for their children.
It is not generally the case that this happens because those responsible for setting up and administering the system deliberately set out to segregate schools by class, ability, race or culture.
Reality of comprehensive dream
Governments, local authorities and school governors have all maintained (with varying degrees of enthusiasm) that they want to produce inclusive schools where the admissions system does not give an advantage to children from already privileged families. Their attempts can fail largely because of the way local communities think about themselves and outsiders, not because of the people who run the system.
The roots for this go back to the creation of comprehensive schools in the 1960s and 1970s. The idea then was to form community schools, designed and run to serve their local communities. They would address the needs of their communities, reflect their culture and become integrated within them.
Unfortunately, the consequence of that was to produce sink schools in deprived estates and posh schools in posh estates. Posh schools became oversubscribed; they would give priority for admission to the children from the privileged families who lived close by and had room for a few children from the deprived estate (usually the ones with the most ambitious parents); and the nearby school would lose budget and suffer even more. An upward spiral for the advantaged and a downward spiral for the others.
In the late 1990s, these trends were countered partly through giving preferential funding to schools with the neediest children – and successive governments have tried to do this. But there was also a recognition that the system had to be regulated.
An admissions code was produced, setting out how schools should draw up their oversubscription criteria; and the Office of the Schools Adjudicator was created to allow parents and others to appeal if they thought admission criteria were unfair.
On the whole these measures worked. As an adjudicator, I could ensure that schools gave first priority to looked after children. I could rule that some admission criteria gave priority to already privileged families so should be changed. I was able to determine that a rural school should not deny access to children from a nearby town because the local community thought that those children would come in and steal their chickens and despoil their daughters.
Three new measures needed
But cracks are now appearing in the system. There are three measures that are now needed to improve the system. First, the admission code has been watered down in recent years to give schools more flexibility in the criteria the adopt. It should now be strengthened, in particular by laying a duty on schools to ensure that the net result of their criteria does not select unduly from privileged families.
Second the Office of the Schools Adjudicator was set up as a tribunal, constituted to resolve disputes, not a regulator, designed to police the system. I do not think it should now become a regulator but I do think that some of the powers originally granted to the OSA and removed over the past few years should be restored.
In particular, adjudicators should be empowered to impose admission criteria on schools which do not meet the requirements of the admissions code and should not have to rely on schools themselves to draw up what are often complicated legal provisions.
Role for Ofsted in admissions
Finally, there must be a more reliable provision for policing the system. It has been the duty of local authorities to review the admission arrangements for all state schools in their area. But local authority budgets have been slashed in recent years and there is evidence that they do not now have the resources to do this job properly.
Local councils must retain a role in schools’ admissions – admissions arrangements have to reflect local needs and only local councils can do this. Nevertheless, some of the responsibility for policing admissions should now be taken by Ofsted. Ofsted inspections should include looking at the admission criteria of schools, with the power to refer to the adjudicator.
Some people think that all schools should have exactly the same proportion of children from minority communities, from each ability group and from all social classes. Even if that were possible (which it patently is not), I do not think it desirable.
Our school system is derived from a mass of compromises, and rightly so. Schools should serve their local communities and that means there will be some differences between the performance and ethnic mixes of neighbouring schools. But they should not become segregated into black and white, rich and poor, high performing and low performing to the extent that some children are denied places because of their backgrounds.
Headteachers, senior managers and governors of schools are doing their best to create and run inclusive, truly comprehensive schools where all children have an equal chance of getting a place and where they will all thrive once they are admitted. We should celebrate that and give them more support in achieving their goals.
Sir Philip Hunter was chief adjudicator for schools from 2002 to 2009