Education Oct 20 2010

Schools should have less freedom on admissions, not more

One area in which the Coalition government has been suspiciously quiet is school admissions. There has been talk of a ‘simplified’ Code of Practice but earlier plans to allow ‘first come first served’ waiting lists, or to give priority access to parents who start free schools have either been deemed unworkable, or are being carefully hidden, for now.

But this proposal from the Conservative controlled Local Government Association, sneaked onto the website of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, makes worrying reading. It suggests there is a plan afoot to make every school its own admissions authority ( with freedom to set and manage its own admissions criteria), to abolish the Office of the Schools Adjudicator, to whom parents can currently complain if they think the system isn’t working for them, and to allow local authorities to police the system instead.

At the moment the Code of Practice is tougher than it has ever been. Changes brought in after the 2006 Education and Inspections Act mean that many covert selection criteria, like interviews, references from primary school head teachers, questionnaires about parental occupation and even marital status, are now forbidden, although overt selection via selective entry tests is still permitted, and few politicians seem willing to confront that.

Local authorities have a responsibility to manage co-ordinated admissions and ensure ‘fair access’ to all schools, but the role of policing the Code is down to the independent adjudicator who responds to complaints, has powers to investigate although still a limited role with academies (and thus free schools) as they are independent and not governed by the laws which regulate maintained schools.

Would the new proposals make the system fairer, easier to navigate or increase parent choice? Judging by research by organisations like the Sutton Trust and by academics like Professor Anne West at the LSE that seems unlikely. Both have persistently shown that many top performing schools already managing their own admissions are ‘socially selective’ and have fewer children on Free School Meals than their neighbouring community schools. Moreover local authorities are often reluctant to challenge those schools because they are high performing and popular.

Creating thousands more own admissions schools, with the ability ( even with the Admissions Code as it stands now) to subtly influence their intakes using banding, re-drawing of catchment areas, and the power to manage the process themselves, and removing the independent adjudicator, especially if the Code is weakened, could create chaos, will almost certainly lead to more, not less, segregation, and reduce choice, especially for the most disadvantaged families without the means to work the system in their favour.

School autonomy is to be encouraged in many areas but when it comes to admissions, schools should have less freedom, not more.

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