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‘There’s something rotten in the state of school admissions – and it’s affecting poor kids the most’

The current systems – or lack thereof – that schools use to decide which pupils to take on allow for widespread game-playing

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With just two weeks to go until national offer day for secondary school admissions, anxiety is growing in homes across the land. Indeed, 1 March has assumed as much importance in the annual news cycle as GCSE and A-level results days in August and stress levels are just as high.

Politicians like to talk about parents having a choice of school for their children, but in reality the result of this political rhetoric is that, in many parts of the country, schools choose their pupils and parental choice is no more than exercising a preference.

Supply and demand

In some areas, this is a simple matter of supply and demand. The demand for places at one or more schools exceeds supply and therefore children have to be allocated according to advertised admissions criteria. According to paragraph 14 of the School Admissions Code, “In drawing up their admission arrangements admission authorities must ensure that the practices and the criteria used to decide the allocation of school places are fair, clear and objective. Parents should be able to look at a set of arrangements and understand easily how places for that school will be allocated.”

But that is not the situation faced by many parents. According to the latest annual report of the schools’ adjudicator,the admission arrangements for many schools that are their own admission authority are unnecessarily complex and lack transparency, especially those with numerous subcategories within individual oversubscription criteria. Such arrangements are difficult to understand and limit parents’ ability to assess the chance of their child being offered a place.”

The issue of lack of clarity is the direct result of there being too many admission authorities. Instead of having a single body in each area – as happens in most countries – a substantial majority of secondary schools (61 per cent) are now their own admission authorities, each with their own set of often complex admission criteria. According to the schools’ adjudicator, “There has been some progress in complying with the Code on consultation about and determination and publication of admission arrangements, but too many schools that are their own admission authority do not comply fully with what are relatively modest requirements.”

In other words, some schools are making it as opaque as possible for parents, which maximises the chance that these schools will receive fewer applications from children from poorer homes and more from homes where intelligent middle-class parents can understand the criteria and play the game according to the school’s admission rules.

Overt and covert selection

There is overt and covert selection of the best pupils. There are 164 grammar schools in England, where selection is overt, and the total number of their pupils increased during the New Labour years of 1997 to 2010. The Weald of Kent school in Tonbridge is being allowed to open a new "450-pupil annexe" in Sevenoaks, 10 miles away, which is a new grammar school in everything but name and the mind of the secretary of state. The seven grammar schools in Gloucestershire are each expanding their intake by 30, a whole school’s worth of bright pupils that will no longer attend the county’s secondary moderns and comprehensive schools. Because these grammar schools are academies, they are all their own admission authorities and so are not required to consult on an increase in their Published Admission Number (PAN). This aspect of autonomy is a recipe for chaos. It is certainly not the basis for a successful system of schools working in partnership.

Then there is covert selection.

A recent Sutton Trust report notes that the “top 500 comprehensive schools have a proportion of children eligible for free school meals that is less than half the national average. More importantly, they have half the average for their own local authority areas. Many of the schools in this study are…exercising a form of social selection. [They] are not using forms of overt selection, they are exercising covert selection. There is a tension between fair admissions and setting catchment areas entirely defined by proximity to a school. The two are not always synonymous.” Some 75 per cent of these 500 comprehensives are their own admission authorities.

A school in Cheltenham has recently attracted controversy by issuing proposals to change its catchment area, with parents telling the local paper that the school appears to be including a more prosperous area at the expense of a less prosperous one.

'Cheating' to boost ability

Banding is another admissions strategy that is open to manipulation. It all depends how the bands are constructed. If a popular school in a deprived area uses national ability bands to offer places, it will inevitably have a much better intake than other local secondary schools. According to the adjudicator, schools say they use banding tests to ensure a comprehensive intake, but the approach can be used to increase numbers of higher-ability pupils.

Some schools are also avoiding taking children in need of a place. The adjudicator’s report states that "most schools work well with their local authority in ensuring a place is available, but a small minority of schools do not cooperate fully and delay or strongly resist the admission of a child".

In her carefully coded language, the adjudicator is saying that some schools are cheating on admissions in order to boost the ability of their intake. That is a deplorable situation, but it has arisen because there has been too much political focus on the autonomy of the individual school and not enough on the health of the system as a whole. The admissions system is the Achilles’ heel of school improvement in England. The accountability and funding systems, based entirely on individual schools, exacerbate the problem and create the incentives for schools to try to gain at the expense of other schools.

We need local authorities

I agree strongly with Margaret Tulloch of the Comprehensive Futures campaign group, who described the adjudicator’s report as very disturbing and called for a "wholesale review of school admissions".

At the comprehensive school where I was headteacher for 16 years, we taught the children the local authority decided should come. For children who could not gain admission at 11, there was a waiting list for available places, although the vast majority were well settled elsewhere by the time that a place became available for them. The system was fair and easily understood by parents.

Local authorities are the appropriate bodies – indeed, the only local bodies – to have an overview of places required in their area. Until they, or some other overseeing body, regain control of school admissions, we shall continue to have a chaotic and stressful process, in which some schools take unfair advantage of their popularity to recruit the most intelligent pupils and 1 March will remain a red letter day in the education calendar for all the wrong reasons.

John Dunford is chair of Whole Education and was formerly a secondary head, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders and national pupil premium champion. He tweets at @johndunford

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