Education Dec 18 2010

Reforming admissions – now that would be radical

Link to original article in Education Guardian

Change, versus more of the same, is possibly the hardest worked political slogan of recent years.  So talk of more radical school reform grinds on, following last week’s  PISA report, when what is on offer is a just dull continuation of the past.

Is there anything in the White Paper that is radically new apart from oddities like the introduction of Biblical Hebrew to the English Bacc? School improvement,  teacher quality, naming and shaming and independent state schools – the last half dozen governments ticked all those boxes with varying degrees of success, while conspiring to protect the ‘no go’ areas that cause the most harm to our school system.

Perhaps the most intractable of these is school admissions. Yet again PISA demonstrates  that selection and equality are incompatible The 11 plus test is even becoming an embarrassment to the authorities who use it.  In fully selective Buckinghamshire, councillors have been sitting on an educational psychologist’s report into the impact of coaching for almost  two years  because it concluded that, unless every child could get access to the same private tuition, it was impossible to judge the test results fairly.

No doubt they are wrestling with how to provide equal access to a privately traded good which costs some parents thousands of pounds a year. Even the Schools Adjudicator, asked to rule on the Bucks system recently, agreed that coaching provided an unfair advantage, but pointed out that his hands were tied  by the fact that the selective test is legal, so palatable adjuncts are both ‘inevitable and unavoidable’

Meanwhile it is clear from the debates on the Local Schools Network website that the simmering suspicion of free schools turns toxic when other local parents get a hint that they may use their freedoms to either exclude some local children, or engineer more favourable intakes, at the expense of existing schools.

There are already examples of how this can be done, again within the parameters of the Code of Practice. One school is planning a feeder system with the lion’s share of places reserved for low FSM primary schools. Another devising a lottery within a 79 square mile catchment area, surely defying the spirit of the recent Academies Act, which claimed new schools should educate pupils ‘wholly or mainly drawn from the area in which they were situated’.

Every incoming Secretary of State tweaks the system a bit. So the White Paper now gives all parents (including those in academies, free schools as well as maintained schools) the right to object to the Adjudicator. But unfair practices remain unfair if no one complains.

The gradual dismantling of selective networks by central government would be a good start, but only a start. For fair admissions to work across a given area, we need independent local bodies, with teeth, that can monitor whether schools encourage balanced intakes and comply with the Admissions Code. If they don’t, they should be referred to the Adjudicator, who in turn should have the power to order schools to change unfair practices especially if they disrupt the ecology of local provision.

Giving this responsibility to local authorities alone won’t work and it is disappointing that the White Paper talks about abolishing the Admissions Forums which, however imperfectly, attempt to do some of the above. Councils are often reluctant to tackle the admissions of their most ‘successful’ schools, even if they don’t directly run them. Why else would the grammar schools, with all the heartache, rejection and inequality they generate, survive?

Who will be first to bite the bullet on this? Michael Gove, who now says he wants the English school system to emulate non selective Finland, or Andy Burnham who has spoken so movingly of his belief in the principles of comprehensive education?

Taking on these vested interests will require nerves of steel. There will be accusations of social engineering, but then all education is a form of social engineering, none more effective than the grammar and independent schools. Both these men claim they want a school system that benefits the poorest children. It won’t all be about admissions but that is a good place to start.

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