Wednesday, February 27, 2008

School admissions and the middle classes

It is now an accepted fact that a significant number of England's secondary schools have been abandoned by the middle classes. The respected chief school admissions adjudicator (Philip Hunter) points out that many of our state schools are still engaging in 'covert' admission practices despite a tightening of the code for admissions detailed in the 2006 Education Act. It would appear that some heads have been asking to see parents' marriage certificates, while others have invited parents to an interview - a practice banned under the new code. The Department for Children, Schools and Families said other examples of law-breaking by admission authorities included not giving the highest priority to children in care and even asking the order in which parents had ranked their school choices.

Britain, or rather England, remains almost unique amongst OECD countries in the degree to which the allocation of a secondary school place determines a child's future life chances. That's why school 'choices', rather than house prices, now dominate discussions at Islington dinner tables. The angst of middle class parents, as their children reach the age of secondary transfer, has reached epidemic proportions. One consequence is that every year children from many of the nation's poorest households are routinely allocated to schools which parents with higher aspirations are determined to avoid. This is because secondary school admission policies remain the secret scandal of our education system. Trapped by the rhetoric of parental choice, locked in by a tabloid league table agenda of what constitutes a `good' school and unwilling to confront the evidence about selective admissions policies, ministers have (up until very recently) allowed admissions policy to drift in a direction that works against every other strand of government policy.

The current admission practice in many of England's secondary schools is helping institutionalise inequality in the nation as a whole. Unfair - and under the new code for admissions - and unlawful admission procedures only intensify social, cultural and ethnic divisions. They foster delusions about consumer choice and reinforce outdated perceptions of quality in education. The outcome of such 'covert' selection practice is to produce an educational apartheid that creates vast ghettoes of under achievement which then suck in vast amounts of public money to compensate for structural inequality. They hold back overall levels of achievement. Our divisive secondary school system is working against our objective of increasing post-16 staying on rates and widening participation in universities.

The government must be seen to challenge schools and local authorities about any breaches to the code but it should go further. The Code of Practice on School Admissions already excludes selection by ability as an admission criteria to all primary schools - this should be extended to include secondary schools. A policy focused on parental choice would throw open hundreds of thousands of places in good schools to parents who have previously been excluded from applying. The winners would far outnumber those who would be anxious about loss of privilege.

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