Wake up to the selection nightmare
Imagine a school near you which, from September 1997, selects 15 per cent of its intake by ability and the remaining 85 per cent by interviewing parents. Regardless of the views of those affected nobody - not even the Education Secretary - could prevent the adoption of such arrangements. Worse still, imagine several such schools within travelling distance of you. What might be the effect on local children and parents - and on other local schools?
This unlikely-sounding nightmare not only could arise; it is being positively encouraged by the draft circular on admissions to maintained schools which is currently the subject of consultation by the Department for Education and Employment. This is to replace the two-year-old Circular 693, which was widely regarded as a significant contribution to the establishment of arrangements which enhanced the rights of parents and children, but is dismissed in a DFEE press release launching the consultation as a "forest of regulation and rigid bureaucracy".
The new draft is claimed to reflect the belief "that schools and not the DFEE are best placed to decide on admissions arrangements which reflect the wishes of parents and the community". In reality, it promotes the apparent belief that schools are best placed to decide on arrangements that serve their own wishes - and that they should be free to do so without the restrictions which, hitherto, have been felt necessary to protect parents and children.
Circular 693 says: "Action since 1980 to increase parents' rights, and in particular to require the LEA or governing body to provide good reason why a child cannot be admitted to the school of his or her parents' choice, has increased the importance and degree of public scrutiny of such admission policies and their operation.
"The Government's commitment to bringing the supply of and demand for school places more closely into balance, while increasing the diversity of provision, will require admission arrangements which operate effectively and fairly in support of parental choice . . . [the Secretary of State] is anxious that schools and LEAs should operate clear and appropriate admission policies; that parents should be able to judge their chances of gaining admission to any particular school; if necessary should understand the reason why they have not gained a place; and if they wish should be able to marshal suitable arguments for appeal."
There is an undue emphasis on the rights of parents to information, rather than the rights of children to fair access to schools, but it is a generally helpful document.
Its main flaw was the introduction of the idea that schools could select up to 10 per cent of their intake by reference to ability or aptitude in music, art, drama and sport (subsequently extended to technology and modern languages) without leading to a significant change of character, and thus the need to publish statutory proposals to which those affected could object.
However, it made clear, as did the more recent Circular 2394 on the supply of school places, that the selection of more than 10 per cent of pupils, or their selection by reference to general academic ability or aptitude, would be regarded as a significant change of character. Now it is suggested that this limit can be increased by 50 per cent, and the subject restriction dropped, without a significant change of character - although the new draft employs the unusually cautious expression that such a change "is likely to be possible without the need to publish proposals". It is surprising that the present arrangements were never challenged in court, but it will be astonishing if the proposed new ones, if implemented, are not.
Current guidance on interviewing is clear and sound: "Schools which do not select on the basis of ability or aptitude should in general avoid using reports or interviews as part of their formal admission arrangements, except in the case of church schools, where reports and interviews may help the school to understand the family's religious background . . . Governing bodies may otherwise be vulnerable to criticism that judgments about a child's suitability were based on social, ethnic or academic considerations". Yet Gillian Shephard, the Education and Employment Secretary, now says: "Interviews with parents and children already play an important role in the admission procedures of many denominational and selective schools. It is right that all schools should be able to decide for themselves whether this is a useful mechanism . . ."
Of course it is not right. It is completely wrong, for precisely the reasons given in 693 under her predecessor John Patten; though the real issue is not the vulnerability of governors to criticism, but the fact that judgments will be made on such grounds. And parents will no longer be able to judge the chances of admission, understand the reason for rejection or marshall arguments for appeal.
If these proposals come into force, then admissions authorities - that is, the governing bodies of grant-maintained and voluntary-aided schools, and LEAs for country and voluntary controlled schools - could introduce such changes virtually without hindrance. While LEAs are most unlikely to wish to, many GM (and even some VA) schools seem likely to. They would be obliged only to consult, and we have already had sufficient examples of GM schools ignoring the wishes of local communities to see how pointless consultation can be. The Secretary of State would have no power to intervene, unless governors behaved unreasonably - and following DFEE guidance could hardly be construed by a Secretary of State as unreasonable, even if there is a different government by September 1997.
But nothing is inevitable - least of all, proposals on education policy. These arose last September, in the same speech as the Prime Minister's idea for a "fast track" for church schools to become grant-maintained. That was buried in an avalanche of hostile criticism; these could, and should, suffer the same fate. However, this will happen only if governors, parents and teachers in the majority of schools that might be affected respond to the consultation. Copies of the draft circular are available from the DFEE (0171 925 6273); responses must be returned by February 22.
Martin Rogers is co-ordinator of Local Schools Information, a LEA-funded advisory group on grant-maintained schools.