Whispers from Westminster

12th August 2016 at 01:00
Admissions competition needs to be fair and open

THE TOPIC of school admissions has been in the news this past week – obviously including discussion of possible new grammars – but also with some fascinating analysis by the team at School Dash, which crunched the numbers on whether various types of schools were taking a “fair” number of their surrounding pupils.

School admissions are a hugely emotive subject. I remember once being in a large meeting with senior school leaders and bigwigs at DfE when one head compared his (“fair”) school practices with his rival, who he named, who he said weren’t playing with straight dice. Another head leapt out of his seat and towered over the table. “That’s. My. School,” he thundered. Awkward silence doesn’t quite cover it.

And it’s true that no analysis – including the School Dash work – can properly unpick whether an unrepresentative local intake is the result of legal-but-maybe-ethically-dodgy practices by a school, or a straightforward decision by the local community not to apply to that institution.

Early free schools have suffered quite a lot from this. I don’t know a single free school that isn’t absolutely determined to take a fair intake of the local population – indeed, often, their budgets depend on it. But many of them have found themselves with a skewed intake in the first year or two. This seems to be driven, as far as I can see in the cases I know of, by a perhaps understandable reticence among some parents to take a chance on a new school.

The recent White Paper committed the government to “making a number of changes to make it easier for parents to navigate admissions.” This is welcome. It’s often claimed that those of us who could be deemed as being on the centre right don’t like admissions discussions and think it’s a curtailment on school autonomy. But as I’ve consistently argued – including to my fellow travellers in the Fabian Society and at the campaign group Comprehensive Future – the reason I’m in favour of a fair admissions system is precisely because I’m in favour of school autonomy, choice, and competition.

If you want to see, as ministers want, schools competing against each other to deliver the best outcomes for pupils, and parents able to exercise (at least some) choice between institutions, then it follows inexorably that you must be in favour of fair admissions as part of a level playing field, where the good will out. To support competition when the game is rigged – whether via admissions, or funding differentials, or anything else – is expecting some schools and parents to play the role of the shill in a street game of Three Card Monte.

The White Paper proposes that academies should set new relationships with their local government. But I’d go one step further than what the government has set out, and remove power over all admissions – not just in-year admissions – from academies.

That, to me, is how you balance local oversight of the rules of the game, while maximising autonomy for the players within it.

Jonathan Simons is a former head of education in the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit under Gordon Brown and David Cameron @PXEducation

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