Monday, 3 November 2008

The admissions dilemma

The Chief Schools Adjudicator, Philip Hunter, publishes his last annual report today. And already it has made plenty of waves with claims that half the foundation and faith schools in the country are breaking the law, and discriminating against poorer pupils. In fact, as one would expect from Dr Hunter, who has been a studiously fair and judicious holder of the post, the report makes clear that most breaches of the School Admissions Code were technical and when they were pointed out to the schools, they were happy to comply. The doubling in complaints largely reflects a legal duty on authorities to report breaches that they didn't previously report as a matter of course.

Most state schools are keen to attract a wide range of pupils; those that opt for more freedom from the local authority are no less so than others. But they don't always have the same resources to get it right first time. In any case, adherence to the Code is not going to produce any magic solutions: where schools give preference to those living closest and to the siblings of children already there, there will always be a bias of some sort. That's why some schools and authorities have tried to use banding - where places go to pupils of all abilities based on a reading test - or ballots - common in many other countries - to give parents without the means to buy expensive houses close to certain schools a fair chance. But they too are attacked in the media.

The truth is that no system can ever be perfect so long as there are some imperfect schools - and some schools will always be better than others, no matter how far reform goes. There's no point blaming heads of the best schools for that. Nor is there any merit in tinkering further with the Code. The leader of the Association of School and College Leaders, Dr John Dunford, is right when he says: "The last thing that parents and schools need is more tinkering around the edges. The government should give schools time to get to grips with this code, and should understand fully where the problems lie, before making changes to the code."

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