Thursday, April 10, 2008

School admissions - we need to admit to our mistakes

The piece below also appears on the Guardian's Comment is Free website.

Jonathan Freedland is right to argue that the new-found boldness of schools' secretary Ed Balls on the issue of admissions must be only the start. This year alone the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) has uncovered 79 instances where the new statutory code for admissions has been breached by schools that didn't give priority to kids in care; used supplementary forms asking for personal details about the applicants' parents; requested "contributions" to the school fund; asked for birth and marriage certificates and used "subjective tests" to choose pupils.
The sad truth is that the 79 examples highlighted by the DCSF and widely reported in the media are probably the tip of a huge iceberg. In his annual report, Philip Hunter, the respected chief schools adjudicator 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 Education Act 2006.
Does it matter? The short answer is yes. For those who want to see an increase in the levels of social mobility, for those who care about enhancing the life chances of our nation's young people, these infringements of the admissions code make for depressing reading. 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 get to secondary age, 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 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 the line on admissions 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 to institutionalise inequality in the nation as a whole. Unfair and - under the new code for admissions - unlawful admissions 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 underachievement 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 admissions criterion 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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