Monday, 2 November 2009

Fair admissions are key to school choice

A plan to crack down on parents lying about their home or religious circumstances as a way of gaining an advantage in schools admission has attracted the predictable response that 'there should be more good schools' rather than fairer admissions rules. And an inquiry into school lotteries - predictably - is likely to endorse their continued use.

Of course, those who raise the mantra about good schools - like the indefatigable Sheila Lawlor on Today this morning - don't bother to look at what's actually been happening in schools over the last decade or so. There are twice as many comprehensives where 70% or more pupils achieve five good GCSEs including English and Maths, and the number where fewer than 30% do so has fallen from 1600 - half of all secondaries in 1997 - to around 250 today.

But even if the numbers of top performing schools are doubled again and no school gets below the 30% benchmark - which should be the minimum expectation for the next phase of school reform, although the Tories are curiously unwilling to explain what outcomes they expect from their proposed changes - there will still be some schools that are more popular than others. Anyone suggesting otherwise is talking rot.

So, the issue is then: what is the fairest way to allocate places where a school has more applicants than places? Good schools are encouraged to expand, but are often reluctant to do so. The number of academies, which are typically very popular with parents, is expanding rapidly. But a system will still be needed that is fair.

Since both major parties now eschew selection (apart from a limited 10% on aptitude in a handful of subjects) this boils down to a question of whether proximity to a school should trump most other criteria? For primaries, it makes sense to use this. But for urban secondaries, it does not, as the arbitrariness of distance simply drives up house prices and places some schools out of reach on financial grounds. Far fairer to use either banding or a lottery (random allocation).

But that is not enough in itself. There must also be a network of community activists trained to help less articulate parents to be as pushy as their middle class counterparts. Such choice advisers should not be local authority bureaucrats, but part-timers from the communities that need support, with credibility in those communities but the knowledge to understand the best choices for individual pupils. And the changes introduced in 2008 (following the 2006 Act), where free school transport is now linked to choice, should be extended and much better publicised so that there is subsidised transport available to a choice of schools within a reasonable distance of one's home. To pretend that choice will emerge simply because new providers are allowed is not enough. There must be active support to enable people to exercise those choices.

UPDATE: The Adjudicator's reports can be read here. Ed Balls's response is here; there is to be no wider crackdown, and a welcome endorsement of lotteries as tie-breakers. However, the response does dodge the genuine usefulness of random allocation or banding as a way of widening access to good schools. That is a debate which should not be dodged.

This post is also featured on Progress online.

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