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Race warning over sibling rule

Inner-city head's move to change policy may be discriminatory. Gillian Davies and Stephen Lucas report

A popular inner-city school has been warned it could fall foul of the Race Relations Act after saying it wanted to change its admissions policy to fight the domination of children from large families who had low aspirations.

Laisterdyke high school, in Bradford, which is oversubscribed (see below), wanted to tackle an "in-built satisfaction and lethargy" in pupils by abolishing a rule that gave priority to siblings of current pupils, 88 per cent of whom are from ethnic-minority, predominantly Pakistani, backgrounds.

Last week the school's adjudicator upheld a complaint from Bradford council and said the new admissions policy was wrong. He said: "It will be important for the governors to be watchful that there is no risk of an impression being given of what might amount to indirect racial discrimination, contrary to the Race Relations Act."

Finding herself in this unlikely position is the affable headteacher, Joan Law. Dressed in civvies amidst a mountain of delivery boxes at the school, Mrs Law, who has been head for the past 15 years, told The TES that the warning had come out of the blue: "There was absolutely no intention of racial discrimination," she said.

Mrs Law is proud of her school. It has seen its GCSE results rise from 25 per cent with five or more A*-Cs in 2002 to 40 per cent in 2004, despite standing in a neighbourhood of smoke-blackened terraces and boarded-up pubs; one of the top 100 most deprived wards in the country. The proposal to change the admissions policy was an attempt to further raise standards.

"Dropping the rule would cause family disruption but we want children to have an educational motive for coming. Your brother being able to bring you to school is not a sound educational reason for coming. Most pupils here have ambition, but some have a 'take it or leave it' attitude to education because they know they are going to get in because of the sibling rule," said Mrs Law.

She blamed Bradford for the school's move to drop the sibling rule. The local education authority first suggested dropping the sibling rule last year but changed its mind after objections were raised during consultation.

Mrs Law said other schools in the area supported the proposed change.

Adjudicator Richard Lindley said most experts believed it was a good thing for siblings to attend the same school and concluded that the "harder path" of working with pupils, parents and the community was a better way to raise aspirations.

Mrs Law, who accepts the adjudicator's decision, said: "It has never been our intention not to work with pupils and parents, and we will continue to do so."

Among reasons given in a submission by the clerk to the governors for changing its entrance arrangements were that the school wanted to reverse a tendency towards mono-culturalism in the school, to avoid domination "by a significant number of multi-child families" and "challenge ... an over-representation of low aspirations". It said a "pattern of sibling imitation" existed and it hoped the new policy would raise attainment by all children in the catchment area.

Mrs Law is pleased that under the new admissions arrangements children who live closer to the school and do not have siblings there will have priority over those that live further away and do have siblings at the school.

She said: "The sibling rule meant that the catchment area was spreading to the disadvantage of those who live locally. Having older siblings at the school can work positively, but what about the poor soul on the doorstep who cannot get a place because they have been taken by children with brothers or sisters at the school?"

The council claimed the new policy would have disrupted family ties, caused younger brothers and sisters to be allocated places at another school, and had the potential for confusion among parents for whom English was not their first language.

The LEA's objections to children in care and those with statemented special educational needs not being given priority were also upheld.

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