We can only stop the cheating over school admissions if the code of practice is strictly enforced
It beat any April Fools' Day story: the BBC had just broken the news that surveillance agents - doubtless retired MI5 officers supplementing their income - had been staking out a young family's house in Poole, Dorset, to make sure they weren't cheating on school admissions.
The media understandably focused on civil liberty issues and the council's disproportionate reaction. But the real issue in the Poole story is the chronic breakdown of the school admission system.
This has three main manifestations:
- some parents behaving badly;
- some schools ignoring the recently toughened schools admissions code of practice;
- some politicians being fainthearted in looking after the public good.
Consider. Each year, as every local authority knows, parents try various ruses to get the school they want for their child: a few are dishonest. Some lie about where they live; others become born-again Christians. They simply try to do whatever it takes, in a market in which the available goods are limited, to be among those who get what they want. It's how markets behave. Parents distort the facts to meet admissions criteria. It happens elsewhere, too. In Spain, divorce and legal separation rates have doubled partly because being a single parent carries a favourable points weighting for school admissions.
Schools behave badly, too. Some administer tests that are supposed to ensure a "fair" entry but with built-in rules that do the reverse. Others, more seriously, massage the results to get the pupils they want. (As one disingenuous headteacher once said: "Well, I took more girls, despite the scores, to get a better balance.") And, as we recently learnt, a few schools even demand "voluntary" contributions of money as expressions of "good intent" from parents before admission decisions. As the former head of The Oratory in London told me: "It's by choosing parents that you can be sure of making a school successful. It's what the independent schools have been doing for centuries." It's what the original city technology colleges and some early academies did, too.
Thank goodness, the code of practice has halted some of these Spanish practices. And the actions of the truly "independent" private schools don't help. Parents accept a place at a state school as a safety precaution and then, when their application for the "independent" private is successful, simply don't turn up in September, frustrating the choices of other parents - usually the poorest - whose children by then have joined a second- or third-choice school.
Such bad behaviour by a few parents and schools matters in two important ways. First, the schools jockey for position in the pecking order. Get better pupils and you get better results: no one wants to be threatened by ministers for being one of the 600 schools not reaching the 30-per-cent GCSE threshold (five-plus good grades, including English and maths). In some cases, however, it's not the fault of the schools. In the 90-plus secondary schools in selective Kent that achieve well below the 30-per- cent threshold, teachers are trying their hardest. Selection is at the heart of the county's problem, as it is in Belfast.
The second consequence of a minority of parents and schools playing the system is more serious. The children of poor parents are disproportionately placed in what might be called schools "of last resort", or as Sir Peter Newsam has dubbed them, "schools for other people's children". Most are sited in, or are close to, large areas of social housing, communities suffering multiple forms of deprivation. The effects are starkly illustrated in London, where the best- performing 50 schools at GCSE have in total fewer pupils eligible for free school meals than one school lower down the league table.
But there's a third party here behaving - if not badly - at least faintheartedly: the politicians whose duty it is to prevent the cheating few from frustrating a fair deal for all. I first came to this conclusion one bleak February day in 2003, when I attended a meeting in Downing Street to consider the draft prospectus for the London Challenge. I liked the document but on the way to the meeting told Charles Clarke, then Education Secretary, that it seemed to have two omissions. First, there was no mention of the need to plan secondary-school places across London, the lack of which could lead to academies being established where there was a site, rather than an overall need. Second, there was no mention of the vexed issue of school admissions, a particularly acute problem in London.
I was assured that neither was seen as a priority but Mr Clarke said I could raise it at the meeting. I duly did so with Tony Blair. For a micro- second the prime ministerial smile froze before I was assured that it wasn't a big problem. "It will be," I remarked, "when one of the 5,000 children without a school place south of the river commits a murder during school time."
Five years on, things have changed for the better. The campaigning of Fiona Millar and others has brought the issue up the political agenda, and last year's revised code of practice is a big step forward. But it needs to be observed. I believe we could finally resolve the issue if three things happened. First, a percentage of places ought to be reserved in all schools for pupils eligible for free school meals. Nationally, the proportion eligible for free meals is about 17 per cent but the local figure should reflect local percentages. Second, the Schools' Adjudicator should be empowered to punish governing bodies that are found to have infringed these requirements. Third, all schools, including private, independent schools, should be required to observe the common admissions timetable.
Of course, parents will still cheat, and if they do they should be fined heavily; but perhaps invoking counter-terrorism legislation is going a bit too far.
Tim Brighouse, Commissioner for London Schools (2002-07); chief education officer for Birmingham (1993-2002).