Today's Daily Telegraph reports that Michael Gove is planning to give academies and free schools the right to prioritise pupils entitled to free school meals for admissions, where it can help give them a more balanced intake. I'm not sure why a school wishing to achieve this would do so rather than going for banding or random allocation, but it is nevertheless a brave and sensible move that could help social mobility particularly if the pupil premium becomes anything more than a few hundred quid of sticking plaster for the cuts.
The Telegraph, needless to say, regards the whole thing as 'social engineering', which one supposes is not the same as buying a house in the catchment of a good school in order to gain admittance. I remember when Tony Blair was considering extending the Admissions Code to allow more banding, as well as extending choice for those entitled to free transport and the introduction of choice advisers, the Telegraph was equally sniffy. But those changes were right and necessary, especially as academies expanded, and many do use banding or lotteries. Ironically, it was a Times report on banding - where pupils are tested so they can be placed in different ability bands to achieve a comprehensive intake - that caused some very senior Labour figures to imagine that the 2005 White Paper was about increased selection. It didn't help that the Times placed an 11-plus paper on their front page to illustrate the news.
The simple fact is that good schools need objective measures to avoid becoming socially selective. It is extraordinary that some so-called comprehensive campaigners equate easy access to one's nearest school with fair admissions. With a heavily oversubscribed school, it is nothing of the sort, though it is sensible to have a balance between a neighbourhood catchment and one that is wider and more accessible. Equally, it is not enough to open school admissions up in this way. Choice advisers need to be developed in the way they were originally intended, as advocates from communities where people are reluctant to travel to good schools rather than local authority employees (though some of the latter do some good work, to be fair). Parents need active encouragement to apply.
The Telegraph report suggests that the new measure will be permissive, which is also probably sensible, though schools are required to prioritise children in care in their admissions policies. However, it is to be hoped that there is a degree of positive encouragement to good schools in urban areas in particular either to adopt this preference or to use banding or random allocation for at least a proportion of their intake. With some academies having 11 applicants for every place, it is the only fair way to ensure a more equal intake. That is not about social engineering. It is about enabling genuine opportunities for social mobility.