Enemy at the gates: admissions code risks new inequalities

3rd December 2010 at 00:00
Analysis - The education secretary wants to cut red tape and give schools more say in which children they take. But would simplifying the system really make the process fairer? Stephen Exley reports

Since becoming education secretary, Michael Gove has been a keen advocate of the Government's mantra of stripping away bureaucracy and giving power back to professionals.

When it comes to designing curriculums, imposing discipline or deciding where a school's budget is spent, the argument is that teachers, rather than politicians, know best. And it was an approach that underlies much of the rhetoric at the heart of the education white paper, published last week.

Now one of the few areas where local authorities still have considerable responsibility - administering school admissions - is also to come under increased scrutiny. While details remain unclear, the Government has said it is keen to introduce a simpler admissions code.

In his annual report, schools adjudicator Ian Craig revealed that schools in 18 local authority areas are already failing to comply with the existing code.

And with a host of new academies and free schools - which will act as their own admissions authorities - on the way, critics have expressed concerns that a new code could give schools more power in setting their own selection criteria. This could exacerbate inequalities and deepen the divide between top-performing schools and their neighbours, they warn.

The current 86-page code was beefed up under the previous Labour government to deter parents from lying about their address or church attendance to secure places for their children in popular schools.

Earlier this month, Mr Craig said the code in its current form could be made easier to understand, but warned that thinning down the list of requirements would amount to "throwing the baby out with the bathwater".

"I think we need to be very careful that while we're making it more accessible we don't simplify it to such an extent where it becomes a useless document," he said.

Mr Gove has insisted that simplifying the code would not lead to it being watered down or give schools undue influence over selection.

"If the code is simpler, it is easier for parents to know if there is sharper practice. So simplifying doesn't mean making it any less fair, it means making it fairer," he told The TES. "Now, I have been talking to local authorities and to others that local authorities will have a role vigilantly policing admissions in order to ensure there is fairness. I do want it to be simple, but I also want to ensure that when it comes to admissions that we have pupils and parents choosing schools, not the other way around."

One school that could benefit from the move is the Parkside Federation in Cambridge, which is set to convert to academy status in January.

The federation changed its admissions policy in September, after the office of the schools adjudicator ruled in 2009 that its policy of giving priority to siblings of students was in breach of the admissions code.

But although becoming an academy would give it more control over its admissions, executive principal Andrew Hutchinson does not foresee the change in status leading to a radical overhaul of the federation's admissions procedures.

He says: "Schools should be at the geographical centre of their community, and the admissions code should reflect this. As an academy we would have slightly more control over admissions, but in reality we would still be bound by the admissions code.

"Mr Gove wants to make the code simpler. If it's a good school, then fine. But the difficult thing is to try to find a system where kids go to a school that both they want to go to, and that their parents want them to go to. Mr Gove's conundrum is what to do when all the 'good' schools are full."

As the first independent school to be given the green light to convert to free-school status, Batley Grammar is quickly getting up to speed with the requirements of the existing code.

It will be scrapping its entrance exam and introducing the fair banding system, which requires all applicants to take an IQ test. The intake is then selected with quotas from each IQ band, in order to match the national normal distribution.

Headteacher Brigid Tullie believes this will help to ensure that its new admissions criteria is fair and ensure "we get a spread of abilities". She is keen to see the code made easier for parents to decipher.

"I would be all for plain speaking and simplification to make the code understandable by all parents and teachers alike," she says.

The school is yet to finalise the details of its admissions criteria for its opening as a free school in September 2011.

Mrs Tullie adds: "We are looking to give priority to siblings as that makes sense for us, but we still have to decide whether to rely on a lottery or the distance of the family home from the school, or a combination of both.

"We are mindful that we don't want to affect the other schools on our doorstop by destabilising them in any way."

In recent years, one of the key factors in creating imbalances in the demand for places at neighbouring schools has been the associated fluctuations in house prices.

Only richer families, the theory goes, can afford to buy homes in the catchment area for more popular schools, edging out less well-off families.

It was a desire to stamp out this form of stealth selection that prompted Brighton and Hove City Council to introduce a lottery system in parts of the city, meaning that places were allocated at random, ostensibly eradicating any reliance on socio-economic factors.

Professor Simon Burgess, director of Bristol University's Centre for Market and Public Organisation, co-authored research into how the system has worked since it was introduced in 2007.

"Traditionally it was about taking an entrance test; now it is more around proximity, which parents can afford to buy a house next to a good school," he said.

"This means that geographical criteria are always going to be unfair, and a lottery in principle gets around that - it's completely random."

While there have been some trends in favour of students from more deprived areas in certain areas of the city, the research concluded that the overall picture is broadly unchanged.

Alterations to the school system - not least the introduction of free schools - could have serious consequences for admissions, Professor Burgess warned.

"In the current code, there is nothing for a group of parents who are setting up a free school that guarantees their children will get in. You cannot automatically admit the children of governors or teachers, which creates the delicious prospect of (free school campaigner) Toby Young not having his kid in the school he's setting up.

"The admissions code has been built up over time to make it fairer. Given the number of instances of schools and parents trying to beat the system, it has to be really thorough, long and complicated to rule out all the things people have come up with, so there is a degree of concern about simplifying it."

Handing responsibility for admissions from local authorities to individual schools is also a concern for Nansi Ellis, head of education policy and research at the Association of Teachers and Lecturers.

"It could be a complete nightmare if every school becomes its own admissions authority, in terms of fairness for pupils," she says. "It has to be administered locally by somebody - local authorities seem to be a good idea - to make sure all schools are within the code and co-ordinated.

"If we are continuing to encourage competition between the schools, they have the motivation to choose pupils who they know are going to boost their position in league tables, or at least not detract from it."

It is particularly important that priority continues to be given to looked-after children and those with special educational needs, she says.

"That is the trouble with reducing bureaucracy, it sounds lovely and most teachers would be in support of that. But one person's bureaucracy is another person's protection." January 21: qualifications

What the code says

Rules proliferate in fight for fairness

The latest version of the School Admissions Code came into effect in February.

Its purpose is to give all children a fair and equal chance of getting into a school of their choice, regardless of their background.

It sets out legal requirements for schools, as well as suggested good practice on procedures and criteria.

It has grown to include a host of rules to prevent parents from trying to manipulate the system to gain an unfair advantage in getting their children into their preferred schools. It was also amended to stop covert selection, by outlawing a range of unfair practices in maintained schools, including selective and comprehensive schools, academies and faith schools.

It outlines the roles played by local authorities and the schools adjudicator in how to manage issues such as waiting lists.

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