School admissions: grounds for concern

Mike-Feintuck-web

Mike Feintuck

Roz Stevens

Roz Stevens

When Policy Press published our book, School admissions and accountability: Planning, choice or chance, in January of this year, we expressed a view in the Preface that there was “room for doubt that the increasing emphasis on introducing further ‘freedom’ and ‘independence’ into the school system, while simultaneously reducing the apparatus for accountability, will increase social mobility.” We considered that it would take some time to discover how the coalition government’s school reforms introduced in the early stages of their administration would affect school admissions practices but some early signals in the six months since our book’s publication suggest grounds for for concern. Indeed Fiona Millar, the journalist with the most sustained interest in this most labyrinthine of policy areas, recently called school admissions “the elephant in the room” in an article for The Guardian (13 May 2013).

A report commissioned by a number of sponsors of academies and led by the RSA and Pearson Education, Unleashing greatness: Getting the best from an academised system, published on 10 January 2013, highlighted concerns about the impact of the high rate of “academisation” on the overall state school system, particularly issues relating to governance and accountability, and noted they had found indications of unfair admissions practices. In expressing concern that “existing detrimental tendencies towards social segregation in the English school system are not exacerbated” (p 64), one of the report’s main conclusions was that some academies were taking “the ‘low road’ approach to school improvement by manipulating admissions rather than exercising strong leadership” (p 7-8). The resulting recommendation was that the government should ensure that “academies and maintained schools should be placed on a common footing regarding admissions and should operate within a framework of open and fair compliance” (p 8).

Space does not permit a detailed explanation here of why this disparity in admissions rules between academies and maintained schools exists. Suffice to say the Secretary of State’s greater right to derogate aspects of the 2012 Admissions Code and the 2012 Appeals Code through the funding agreements (contracts) established with each individual academy and free school has produced an environment in which there is now more opportunity than there was previously for systemic unevenness in admissions to occur. As Fiona Millar stated, in The Guardian (3 June): “the fatal mistake has been to ally diverse provision with diversity in admissions”. Our view is that increased diversity of school provision puts a greater pressure on ensuring consistent procedures of accountability and effective supervision and stands the chance of jeopardizing the values those procedures should be defending.

While evidence of social segregation in English state schools is nothing new, it is the sheer scale of the rapid increase in the number of schools transferring to academy status and becoming their own admissions authorities that is the concern. Close on 2,000 (mostly ‘converter’ and mainly secondary) academies have been established so far during the Coalition government period. This number added to the New Labour’s academies and the existing voluntary-aided and foundation schools means that over half of English secondary schools now control their own admissions. So, this isn’t just a story about academies: it is about all state schools that are their own admissions authorities. The Sutton Trust, in a research report released on 3 June 2013, found that three-quarters of the top 500 state comprehensive schools and academies were their own admissions authorities and that these high-performing schools were “significantly more selective than the average state school nationally” with the average rate of free school meal uptake just less than half the national average. In seeking an explanation for this phenomenon, the report concluded that “while schools in this study, by and large, are not using forms of overt selection, they are exercising covert selection to control/ manipulate their intakes.”

For the past three decades the main political parties, albeit in different ways and sometimes with different motivations, have sought the elixir of school improvement through the introduction of policies based on choice, diversity and league table competition in the state school system. This has all served to exacerbate the tendency for some schools to prefer to welcome those pupils most likely to succeed and, albeit in covert ways below the radar of any formal Admissions Code, discourage those who come with problems attached. Until something is done at government level to ensure an open, transparent and effectively regulated system of fair and balanced admissions for all schools in the state system, any new school policies introduced claiming to support the securing of equality of access, equal opportunity and social justice (like the pupil premium) will always have the potential to become compromised. Like a house standing on compromised foundations, no amount of wallpapering will cover the cracks in the long-term.

Professor Mike Feintuck and Dr. Roz Stevens, 11 June 2013

School admissions and accountability: Planning, choice or chance is available to buy with 20% discount from www.policypress.co.uk

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