Last May the Government floated a proposal to allow schools to propel the children of staff to the front of the admissions queue. That raised the surreal prospect of well-heeled parents competing for jobs as cooks and caretakers to ensure their children got into good schools. But the intentions behind it were good - to give staff an added incentive in the performance of their school.
Now the Sutton Trust has given the proposal the thumbs down by pointing out that it will dissuade staff from working in challenging schools as much as it will tempt teachers to stick to good ones (page 5). It believes the Government is correct to permit successful schools to expand. But expansion should be conditional on pupils on free school meals getting priority, which would be a far better way of tackling disadvantage than allowing staff to jump the admissions queue.
The Government seeks to address disadvantage by putting a bonus on poverty, by incentivising schools to take poor students. The pupil premium is a good if modest start. But it isn't generous enough. Poverty will only pay if the Government raises the incentives enough to counter the negatives. Allowing successful schools to expand only if they fast-track poor pupils would be a step in the right direction - but the reward for doing so must be greater than the benefits of simply doing nothing.
It isn't just a matter of tinkering, however. There is a fundamental contradiction between the Government's wish to engineer a fairer deal for poor pupils, which has to be prescriptive, and its desire to allow good schools to expand and new free ones to start, which is permissive. If ministers permissively allow schools to expand without being prescriptive about whom they should admit, schools will pick pupils who are easiest to teach, and they don't tend to be the disadvantaged.
The only way to square the circle is through the admissions code. Unfortunately, not only is the current one full of holes but the situation is deteriorating. When the Bishop of Oxford admits that church schools do not do enough to reach out to the poor, it is an implicit acknowledgment of covert selection. When the schools adjudicator admits schools are using their ability to pick pupils with specialist aptitudes as a proxy for academic selection, it is an explicit acknowledgment of the same problem.
Now the schools adjudicator is stepping down early, the local authorities that police the code are retrenching and newly independent schools are springing up all over. Unless the Government acts to strengthen the admissions code, its permissive policies are bound to scupper its progressive prescriptive ones. If schools are allowed to select whom they serve, they will serve themselves and not the pupils the Government is so rightly keen to help.