Flagship schools open up to poor

Findings may cast further doubt on government reform to give schools freedom over admissions and parental choice. Graeme Paton reports

The Government's new academies are educating increasing numbers of pupils from poor backgrounds and rejecting middle-class children who live nearby, research shows.

A wide-ranging study reveals that the flagship schools also admit more children with disabilities and fewer bright 11-year-olds from local primary schools than other secondary schools.

However, the researchers found that faith schools and foundation schools, which can control their admissions, are some of the most socially selective in England.

The study, by the National Foundation for Educational Research, will be a boost for ministers who have faced criticism that the independent state schools, which cost pound;30 million each, are unnecessarily lavish and may be monopolised by affluent families.

The conclusions come as 19 more academies open this month, bringing the total to 46 - a quarter of the Government's target of 200 by 2010.

David Young academy, Leeds,Jwhich is sponsored by the Church of England and the Intercity Group, is among the 19 opening. The pound;23mJacademy was built inJa deprived estateJin the east of the city andJreplaced two comprehensives, including one heavily criticisedJby Ofsted.

Ros McMullen, principal, said the school was "heavily oversubscribed"

before building work finished:J"This is no false dawn, it is truly the start of a sea change in educationJthat will shape the future of hundreds of children, many from deprived parts of east Leeds, and set new standards.

It will be a challenge for the teaching staff, the support staff and for the pupils themselves."

The NFER researchers looked at the intake of every state primary and secondary school in England and compared them to the social make-up of children living nearby. They found academies were the most socially diverse, taking more children on free school meals - the standard measure of deprivation - than lived near the school.

The study, sponsored by the Local Government Association, showed that 31 per cent of children living near academies - defined as in the local postcode - were entitled to free meals, but 40 per cent of pupils at the schools were eligible.

They also admitted fewer children who achieved level 4 at key stage 2 maths and English than lived in the local area.

The findings, based on the first 17 academies opened, appear to justify the sophisticated admissions arrangements employed by academies to ensure they are not overpopulated by the best pupils.

A TES investigation earlier this year found that almost all academies were using lottery or fair-banding systems - pupils sit an entry test, ensuring all with a full range of abilities are admitted.

However, the NFER said that foundation schools, voluntary-controlled (VC) and voluntary-aided (VA) schools, which include all faith schools, were the most socially selective. The study found they take fewer children eligible for free meals and with special needs, but more bright 11-year-olds. Just 14 per cent of pupils at VA secondaries were eligible for free meals, compared to 19 per cent of children living near the school.

Faith schools have defended their intake in the past, saying that comparisons with the surrounding community were unfair because they admitted pupils from a wider area. The study shows that 13 per cent outside the catchment were eligible for free meals.

These findings will cast further doubt on Government reform, set out in the Education and Inspections Bill, to give schools more freedom over admissions and expand parental choice, a move which it is claimed could exclude less affluent children from the best schools.

The study also found that almost all types of school admitted fewer black and ethnic minority pupils (BEM) than lived in the local area.

Admissions: who goes where?: www.nfer.ac.ukresearch-areas

* graeme.paton@tes.co.uk

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