Is the government planning to overhaul school admissions as part of its grammars policy?

1st December 2016 at 13:03
Allowing schools to select by academic ability would be a profound change to school admissions – and it would be wise for ministers to consider these reforms as part of a wider tidy-up

The government’s hugely contentious policy of reintroducing grammar schools across the country came as a shock to very many people.

So large was the shock that since then many educationists have been blinded to many of the other real problems facing education.

One such issue is the school admissions system for secondaries. To call it a mess would be an understatement and it has been like that for as long as anyone can remember.

Many parents and too many schools are prepared to bend the rules to such a degree that it can feel like the Wild West. And thus it entrenches middle-class advantage.  

All this has been made all the more complex and difficult to navigate by the mushrooming of academies across the country – they are, after-all, their own school admissions authorities (in large part this was a role fulfilled by local authorities in the past).

School admissions 'crisistunity'

But what if civil servants and junior education ministers – who pretty much to a man and woman are opposed to the reintroduction of selective education – see the profound structural shock of grammars as an excuse to really tidy up the school admissions system? It’s what Homer Simpson once called a “crisitunity”.

I understand that this is one option that is being pondered in the DfE by senior officials.

Basically their thinking goes a bit like this: making a change such as allowing schools to select amounts to a very significant change to the laws and rules around school admissions. If you’re going to make such a change, why would you tack it on to a failing system? Why not just start again?

The admissions code and the rules surrounding admissions have long been judged unfit for purpose by pretty much everyone in education. There are glitches and loopholes everywhere: aptitude entry tests and fair banding are two examples of practices that are open to abuse by both schools and parents alike.

That ministers and civil servants are keen to do something about all this is not completely new news.

TES reported back in the spring (in that simpler time before Brexit) that DfE officials were hoping to get changes into the Excellence for All White Paper. At the time we understood they wanted to hand back oversight of admissions to local authorities. But No 10 got in the way and kiboshed the plans for political reasons.

So the emergence of the grammar schools policy, together with a new incumbent in Downing St, seemingly represent a chance to reboot this idea – and a tidy up of the code while they’re at it.

This would also have the positive side-effect of garnering a little much-needed goodwill towards Theresa May, Justine Greening and their school reforms from the world of education.

There is, of course, one problem with this plan: it is unlikely to prove popular with middle-class Tory voters, which is probably why David Cameron’s Number 10 canned the idea back at the beginning of the year. So don’t hold your breath.

Ed Dorrell is head of content at TES


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