Tell the truth. ‘Parental choice’ trumps fair admissions and educational opportunity for all.

As an avid follower of education news, my Twitter feed was dominated for a time this morning by those highlighting and discussing comments by the outgoing Chief Schools Adjudicator Dr Elizabeth Passmore. The BBC report quoted as saying that significant numbers of schools are breaking the admissions code and that too many admissions policies are “unnecessarily complex” or “unfair”.

To be quite clear, this is from the primary officer responsible for acting to investigate reported breaches and respond appropriately to them. For them to report that there is a known issue that current arrangements are doing little or nothing to tackle should be of great concern to policy makers.

But, of course, it won’t be.

The article states that the Department for Education (DfE) “would review the findings and take action where needed.” History would suggest that this ‘review’ will be piecemeal and the ‘action’ negligible. And so it will continue.

I have written on this issue several times for Educating Brentwood, most recently last August when I highlighted again the report of the then Children’s Commissioner regarding schools who sought to dissuade parents of SEND children from joining their school, ‘It Might Be Best If You Looked Elsewhere’ . In Twitter exchanges afterwards the author of the report confirmed that no action was taken to address the issues within the report pertaining to this or unfair admissions generally, and she had little confidence that action would ever be taken.

There is a central reason why this state of affairs is allowed to persist and why successive governments have been reluctant to tackle it but I have not seen any analysis that states it.

It is very simply this: selection and segregation is popular.

More importantly it is popular with parents who are likely to vote.

As several people have pointed out on Twitter this weekend, academic selection is popular with those who assume that their children will benefit from it. If that is not an option, more subtle selection via complex admissions codes will suffice. Because, far from seeing the benefits to their children of mixing with kids from other backgrounds, faiths, or even sex, many parents see perceived differences as potentially corrupting factors for their children’s education. Worse, the current education system and its inspection regime encourages this.

The fragmentation of the education system in the apparent pursuit of ‘greater parental choice’, be it in the shape of grammars, faith schools or spurious subject ‘aptitude tests’, is based on exclusion rather than ensuring the best possible education for ALL children. How else to explain this graph of school intakes in one non-selective area of London?

Admissions graph

Why do schools seek to manipulate their intake? This graph, put together by headteacher Trevor Burton, of Ofsted gradings by ability intake tells you all you need to know.

Ofsted grading

So the problem is well known, the evidence is available, and yet nobody acts to address it.

It’s why the last Labour government stopped short of scrapping grammars.

It gives insight into the ease with which new faith schools can gain sufficient signatures to ‘prove demand’ to open.

It explains why faith schools continue to operate complex criteria despite the stated wish of many faith leaders that they become truly accessible to their local communities.

It is quite clear from the outgoing Chief Schools Adjudicator that the current regime, based on whistle blowing instead of proactive monitoring, is not going to address unfair admissions. Schools willing to dissuade SEND children from being part of the intake appear to be able to do so (publicly) without sanction. How will this situation change if there appears no willingness to take any meaningful action against transgressors?

Some argue that parents need to be persuaded to look beyond the received wisdom of the playground and narrow Ofsted headline judgements and encounter the benefits for their children of being part of a truly inclusive environment and that more balanced intakes will result. However, even parents who would like to see fairer admissions are currently getting drawn into ‘playing the game’ via tutoring or temporary Christianity as they have no confidence that action will be taken and so go along with the prevailing myth that not doing so is not ‘doing what’s best’ for their child.

It is clear to me that maximising the educational chances for all of our children should be central to education policy and therefore ensuring comparable access to facilities and resources via fair admissions should be the starting point and a priority for government. So unless regular proactive checks are carried out and meaningful sanctions are placed on transgressors you will forgive me for thinking that talk of education being the engine of ‘social justice’ is hot air.

Some commentators will point to selection by house price as being the consequence of giving priority to local people but I view that as an excuse for inaction. Local catchments address the concerns about complexity and are surely preferable (and fairer) than having degrees of church attendance filling up the first eight categories of over subscription criteria!

Swift substantive action is possible if the will is there. Scrapping Supplementary Information Forms and dropping the Ofsted ‘Outstanding’ rating would be where I would start but then again maximising educational opportunity is my main concern, not appeasing voters.

While political concerns remain primary then I am confident that unfair admissions and segregation will continue to be a feature of our education system, to the detriment of all of our children.

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