Just feel the width

12th April 1996 at 01:00
Cyril Taylor argues for selecting pupils by the city technology colleges' route. The Comprehansive Debate. The current debate about admissions is promoting widespread interest. Regrettably, much of the discussion centres around the views of two groups: those who support the concept of the neighbourhood comprehensive school and those who would like to bring back academic selection.

The City Technology Colleges Trust believes this is too narrow a basis for a constructive dialogue, especially with regard to urban areas where parents can choose from a large number of schools within a reasonable travel distance. We believe a more fundamental question to answer is how should schools which are oversubscribed choose their pupils. We believe that one-third of all schools are already in this category and the proportion will grow each year.

Nearly all of the original pilot group of 15 CTCs are oversubscribed, with typically three applicants for every place. Many of the new technology and language colleges, of which there are now nearly l50 (with more to be announced in May), are also very popular. As we have more applications than we have places, we must of necessity choose our pupils. This article discusses how CTCs within our network do this on a fair basis.

Since we offer specialisation in maths, science and technology or languages and our schools are usually located in urban areas, common sense dictates that we should have wide catchment areas in order to offer the maximum degree of choice to parents. This also ensures that their popularity does not have a disproportionate impact on a few neighbouring schools, perhaps leading to the closure of a less popular school. We also believe that requiring popular schools to choose pupils who live nearest to their schools is unfair since this frequently means admittance to a popular school is tied to living in an area with expensive housing.

CTCs and most technology and language colleges are, however, comprehensive schools. Indeed, CTCs are required by their funding agreement with the Government to admit students representative of the full range of ability among students in their catchment area.

The following is the approach typically used by CTCs to admit their pupils, although some use differing approaches.

* A clear admissions procedure is described in the school prospectus.

* Parents are requested to apply by a certain date, usually in the autumn preceding the September of entry.

* Applicants are asked to complete an application form.

* The pool of applicants is screened to ensure that pupils live in the catchment area andor that they are in the right age group.

* Those who meet catchment and age requirements (usually 500 or so) are invited to a prospective-parents-and-pupils evening at the school, during which the CTC style of education is described (eg longer school day and year; emphasis on maths, science and technology).

* Parents and pupils still interested in applying after the meeting are invited to the school for a meeting at which the following takes place: a) pupils take a non-verbal reasoning test (typically a National Foundation for Educational Research test) or other tests; b) both parents and pupils are usually invited to confirm their commitment to the CTC style of education. Parents, for example, are asked to confirm their willingness to encourage their son or daughter to stay in full-time education or training at age 16; c) Sometimes pupils are invited to bring "projects" to the meeting that indicate their interest in technology - model aeroplanes, working models etc. Some schools ask prospective pupils to play a computer game or demonstrate interest in computers in another way.

* Some CTCs use the test results (including, if available, primary school reports and key stage 2 results) to group applicants into three or more ability bands (which may include division into three sub-bands, making nine groups in total). This is, of course, on a school-by-school basis rather than an LEA-wide scheme.

* A target of admissions from each band is established with the goal being to ensure that the pupils given a place represent a wide range of ability which reflects the ability range of the area.

* Sometimes a bias in admissions is given to pupils applying from a particularly disadvantaged area within the catchment area.

* Using the above data, the admissions committee or the principal chooses the pupils to be given a place plus a reserve list.

* Appeals can be made to an appeals panel.

This admissions approach is successful in that there have been very few legal challenges from parents and a wide range of ability is admitted. This process does not cream off the best pupils. Indeed, the reverse happens. Many of the very able pupils who apply are not offered a place because this would breach the requirement that a wide range of ability be admitted which is representative of the area. Similarly, the discussion with parents is not used to favour middle-class parents, but rather to ensure that the CTC style of education is understood and supported by each prospective parent. We regret having to disappoint a large number of students but we think our system is fair.

There is, however, an urgent need to develop reliable and credible aptitude tests which would help identify students with the greatest potential to benefit from our specialised curriculum. We are, therefore, initiating a research project to develop aptitude tests in either technology or language study.

Professor Howard Gardner of Harvard University has determined that ability and aptitude can be divided into seven distinct areas (linguistic, musical, logical, mathematical, spatial, sensory, motor plus two forms of personal intelligence, the intrapersonal and the interpersonal) and that this might have a bearing on test structure. We are also reviewing existing tests developed by the National Foundation for Educational Research as well as by the recruitment divisions of the Armed Services.

We note that the recent Department for Education and Employment consultation document on selection makes no reference to specialist schools such as technology and language colleges but suggests instead that all schools should be allowed to select up to 15 per cent on aptitude or ability without having to apply formally for selective school status.

We support giving schools this degree of autonomy, but we believe that this flexibility should be widened for comprehensive technology and language colleges to allow them to admit all their students on the basis of aptitude for their specialisation with no percentage limit, providing that they still admit a wide range of ability.

Allowing inner-city schools to admit a proportion of their pupils to a fast-track set will increase their overall appeal and the number of applications, and ratchet up standards generally.

A number of technology colleges have been established at schools with a current modest level of achievement. Adopting a specialisation allows such schools to relaunch themselves and create a new identity.

Philosophically, the CTC movement believes that all schools should be encouraged to play to their strengths and that all parents should have the widest possible choice of school for their sons and daughters. When technology and language colleges become oversubscribed, the solution will be to create more of them rather than to reduce choice by requiring technology colleges who are oversubscribed to choose pupils who live nearest to their school.

Chairman Mao, speaking in Peking in 1957, said "letting a hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thought contend is the policy for promoting progress in the arts and the sciences". If Mao, at least for a period in his career, supported choice and diversity, we hope New Labour will do the same so that a bipartisan consensus can develop on this important issue.

Of the 3,614 secondary schools some 158 are specialist schools, there are a similar number of grammar schools, about 500 voluntary schools, and about 600 grant-maintained schools of which 83 are also grammar schools. Thus already some 40 per cent of all schools are not neighbourhood county comprehensive schools.

We already, therefore, have considerable diversity but we need to increase choice in particular areas, especially the inner city. Above all, we should be seeking to raise standards in all schools by levelling up rather than trying to penalise popular schools by reducing their catchment areas.

Sir Cyril Taylor is chair of the City Technology Colleges Trust.

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