For the benefit of all
We shall never know how far the Prime Minister's choice of schools for his own children inhibited the adoption of a bolder approach by his government to the reform of admissions policy. However, nearly six years after Labour's initial election, change is afoot.
The new code of practice and provisions of the 2002 Education Act create the opportunity to end a range of current practices. This is in response to the increasing polarisation of secondary school intakes, and the perception that some over-subscribed schools continue to shun collective responsibility for raising standards for all, particularly the long tail of often disadvantaged underachievers that dogs our national education performance.
Around one-third of our secondary schools have a pupil body that is starkly different from their local community - with less than half or more than double their LEA proportion of children eligible for free school meals. Too many prefer to improve their performance by selecting, often covertly, a more advantaged intake. They will now find this harder.
Although the new code is similar to its 1999 predecessor, there are stronger mechanisms for enforcing it. Guidance that admissions criteria should be "clear, fair and objective" and "work for the benefit of all" remains unchanged, as does the requirement on admissions authorities to "have regard" to the code. But those who ignore the guidance now face the prospect of effective challenge from a number of quarters.
The most flagrant obstacle to fairness and objectivity, interviewing by church schools, is to be ended. Church authorities sought this reform back in 1999, to the dismay of the minority of their schools that persist with the practice. Inexplicably, this change will not happen for another year.
The newly mandatory Admissions Forums are to be given responsibility for ensuring that proposed arrangements in their area actually are clear, fair and objective and do work for the benefit of all, and for issuing advice if they are not, to which admission authorities must have regard. In the event of continuing disagreement, cases may be referred to the Schools Adjudicator by a wider range of objectors.
Community and voluntary-controlled schools, especially primaries whose pupils are disadvantaged by the practices of some of their foundation and voluntary-aided neighbours, may now refer objections to the adjudicator.
Meanwhile, LEAs, which had such powers before, are now advised to use them.
Any LEA which ignores practices it believes to be in breach of the code faces a potentially damaging investigation by the local government ombudsman. This new emphasis on LEAs' duties is the result of successful complaints from parents to the ombudsman, resulting in findings of maladministration, compensation for the parents affected and in changes to the admissions arrangements concerned, over which the ombudsman also has jurisdiction.
The disadvantage of this approach is that it is remedial not preventative.
Only the adjudicator can require a change of arrangement before it is implemented, thus preventing the detriment to pupils which the ombudsman is empowered to correct - yet the Government has so far refused to give parents the right to refer objections to the adjudicator.
Other changes include new guidance that all admissions authorities should give top priority (after children with special educational needs) to children in public care. This is a highly disadvantaged group whose problems have historically been greatly exacerbated by the school system and the admissions process.
Forums will also have to consider, and attempt to broker and issue advice on, provision for "vulnerable children" (including groups who frequently require admission outside the main transfer round) and arrangements to ensure a more even distribution of pupils with challenging behaviour, including children excluded from other schools.
This is intended to end the situation whereby over-subscribed schools can turn away such cases, often leaving their less popular neighbours to admit them in undue proportions. Forums are the key to change. And further guidance, making explicit the Government's expectations, would greatly help to bring reluctant participants into line. If individual schools are allowed effectively to veto a forum's proceedings, then the adjudicator, and possibly the courts, will have a busy time ahead.
Why does all this matter? Quite simply, because our school system is failing to meet collectively the challenges of educating the next generation of adults. Social inclusion and cohesion are not abstract or ideological aims; they affect the nature and success of our society. Social justice, and evidence that overall educational achievement is improved more effectively with less segregation, demand a more equitable sharing of responsibility and access. Changing school admissions is urgent. But it will only come about if all concerned act on their new opportunities.
Martin Rogers is co-ordinator of the Education Network, which promotes achievement through local authorities