Some of the most vulnerable pupils are being marginalised by schools because of the pressure to raise results, say support groups.
Supporters of children in care and those with special needs told The TES that concerns about league tables were pushing some schools to reject pupils they felt were unlikely to help in rankings.
Nigel Utton, a primary head, said he knew a colleague in another primary who pinned sticky notes to her wall with the names of pre-school pupils who were "not so quick at learning". The school would then not accept these pupils at admissions time.
"This is appalling - it's criminal," Mr Utton said. As well as being head of St Lawrence CofE Primary in Alton, Hampshire, Mr Utton is chair of Heading for Inclusion, a group of school leaders committed to inclusive education. "A certain type of school that wants to maintain its high results is not going to be an inclusive school," he said.
The head of another primary in the South East said some secondaries in his area made it hard to admit pupils with special needs.
"I have colleagues who are committed to taking children with a wide range of abilities," he said. "But three schools I know of make it very difficult for the full range of children to be admitted. My wife is head of a children's home and finds it very difficult to place the children she works with in schools.
"The head, for example, will say things like, `I do not take children with behavioural difficulties'."
Last week, after a survey of admissions practices in three local authorities, the Government said some schools were not giving looked-after pupils priority in their admissions, which is a legal requirement.
The Government's new admissions code requires schools to prioritise looked-after children when considering applications. And the Children and Young People's Bill now going through Parliament says no child in care should move school in Years 10-11.
Kevin Williams, chief executive of TACT, a charity for children in care, welcomed the moves. He said many schools had a good record with looked- after children.
But he added: "Other schools do not like to take vulnerable children or children in care. They are seen as disruptive. They are achieving disproportionately worse than their peers, and the gap has widened in the past five years.
"Surely it's a school's job to educate all children. It's not their job to be guided by the league tables. Children in care come with some issues, but they also come with so much potential. It should be the job of schools to make sure that potential is realised."
Other organisations share these concerns. Jane McConnell is legal adviser for the Independent Panel for Special Education Advice (IPSEA), which advises parents in admissions tribunals. She said secondary schools, particularly those with good academic records, were sometimes keen to keep out children with special needs.
She added: "Some will even say they cannot meet the child's needs because to do so would affect the school's academic record, and this will interfere with the effective education of other pupils.
"League table pressures are pervasive in other ways. A parent can be looking at a school for her child, for example, and they are trying to get a feel for how it will receive her child. If the feeling you get is that they do not want the child there, that colours the choice the parent makes. So they can be forced out discreetly."
Ms McConnell said IPSEA was uncovering particular concerns over academies' admissions policies. "Some academies appear to be doing what they want with regard to whether or not they admit special needs children," she said. "There is little back-up for parents if things go wrong."
Tara Flood, chief executive of the Alliance for Inclusive Education, said results pressures were undermining any hope that schools were becoming more inclusive. "Many schools will feel less committed to a culture of caring for a range of learners if they are worried about losing their position in league tables," she said. "Academic achievement surely should not be the only measure of what a young person is doing in school."
Last month, a report from the Nuffield Foundation said many teenagers now not in education, employment or training had lost out from a system that focused on only a narrow range of educational attainment.
However, not all those representing vulnerable pupils are downbeat. A source at the National Association of Teachers of Travellers said most schools worked very hard to reach out to Traveller children.
She said 15 years ago, only one secondary in the large county where she works had Traveller pupils on its books, but now 20 did.
"You hear horror stories from 20 years ago or more, such as a Traveller pupil passing her 11-plus and then being told she was not welcome at grammar school," she said. "We have come a long way since those days."
She would not comment on whether league table pressures encouraged schools to be less inclusive.
A spokesman for the Department for Children, Schools and Families said that schools had to follow strict rules on admissions.
"Children with statements of special educational needs must be admitted to the school named on their statement, without exception," he said.
The main purposes of the "enjoy and achieve" aim are that children:
- are ready for school
- attend and enjoy school
- achieve stretching national educational standards
- achieve personal and social development and enjoy recreation
What inspectors want to see:
- Parents receiving support to help children enjoy and achieve
- Action taken to ensure that educational provision for five- to 16-year- olds is good
- Educational provision for children who do not attend school
- Children having access to a range of recreational activities
- Looked after children, those with learning difficulties and disabilities being helped to enjoy and achieve
- Percentage of 11-year-olds gaining level 4 English and maths
- Percentage of 14-year-olds meeting level 5 targets in English, maths, science and ICT
- Percentage of 16-year-olds getting five A*- C grades at GCSE, including English and maths
- Half day absences
- Take-up of cultural and sporting opportunities by 5- to 18-year-olds
Stephen Chynoweth, head of The Tyrrells School, a primary in Chelmsford, Essex, gives his advice.
Five tips for teachers
- Enjoy achieving: progress can be intrinsically satisfying for both children and staff.
- Balance enjoyment and achievement throughout the day. Although the ideal lesson incorporates both, look to ensure equilibrium - just like life.
- Ensure real purpose to children's learning. For instance, develop their persuasive writing skills by getting them to write real letters to real people, such as one on an important environmental issue to the Prime Minister.
- Bring depth and meaning to lessons, but don't forget about achievement.
- Define achievement by what really matters: always focus on the whole child. Achievement in the core subjects will follow.
Five tips for heads
- Communicate a clear and robust whole child-centred vision of learning excellence throughout the school. Regularly revisit its impact, communicate it, and reinforce it.
- Be brave and have courage in your convictions and vision. Delivering a whole-child approach will deliver achievement, but not necessarily in the short term.
- Trust professionalism, but expect accountability. Achievement is measured through outcomes.
- Support innovation strategically, with funding and enthusiasm, but expect evaluation of its impact upon standards.
- Be a model of enthusiasm, value contributions from all quarters, and look to share good practice.