Last week the Government unveiled its new Admissions Code with further fanfare about its supposedly revolutionary potential. There are a few useful changes, and the odd perverse one. It makes sense to combine a permissive attitude to the expansion of good schools with the opportunity for academies and free schools to prioritise pupils on free school meals (though why voluntary-aided church schools are excluded is not explained). The Schools Adjudicator may not be able to investigate concerns off his own bat, but will now cover Academies and must respond to complaints from anybody, not just other admissions authorities. Oddly, area-wide lotteries are banned, though banding stays and schools may run their own independently-supervised lotteries; again, a change lacking logic but seemingly based on one study of the Brighton experience, which was in reality as much about addressing middle class grievances as reducing social segregation. Parents have a bit longer to appeal against admissions offers and teaching staff can be prioritised in school admissions policies even where there are no shortages.
What is remarkable about the code, besides the admirable sub-editing job performed on its overlong predecessors, is how much it retains of that which Labour introduced. In reality, most school admissions will continue to place priority on distance and siblings, while new selection is still outlawed, and the coalition must hope that enough free schools are established and that the improvements of the last decade continue apace so that dissatisfaction in urban areas with admissions is reduced. But of more importance to their stated priorities is the extent to which the new Code linked with the pupil premium, school structural reforms and changes to accountability combine to improve social mobility.
And, on that, the jury is still out. The rhetoric has certainly been bracing, and the Government's media cheerleaders have become over-excited at the pace of academy conversions. But there are a number of important issues that need to be addressed if the rhetoric is to affect reality on the ground.
First, the pupil premium is too low this year at £430 per pupil to make much difference, especially as schools are coming to terms with other budget cuts. The premium should reach £1600 by 2014-15 and may then have a bigger impact, but a lot will depend on how schools are held accountable for its results. The league tables may include measures of achievement and progress for poorer pupils, but it will be the value attached to such measures in the Ofsted inspection framework that matter most: the new league table measures will not greatly affect parental choices in themselves.
Second, the structural reforms are certainly a victory for advocates of greater independence and diversity - I would certainly count myself as one. But with a few admirable exceptions, most of the 40 planned free schools will do little for the poorest students, however much they satisfy middle class or religious parental aspirations. And most converter academies are converting so for financial reasons. There is little sign that the DFE is using Michael Gove's initial commitment to ensuring strong system leadership from the new academies, within funding agreements for example. Meanwhile, the Government has diverted time and effort to the legal process of academy conversion from the far tougher job of turning around failing schools, even though the £25,000 grant available to converters should cover their legal costs. It insults the intelligence to pretend that the hard grind needed to turn around or replace failing schools is comparable to the fairly simple, financially persuasive and legal process required for successful schools, and without the same drive that Andrew Adonis brought to sponsor-led reform, there will not be the gains that were made by Tony Blair's Academies. Liz Sidwell is making a good start as Schools Commissioner, but the DFE effort as a whole needs to focus on the hard rather than the easy wins. Inputs are not the same as outcomes.
And finally, the changes to the Admissions Code are, understandably, permissive. But the pupil premium offers a chance to use some leverage. Prioritising poorer pupils in successful schools could be one of a menu of possibilities linked to a higher premium in the future. As could becoming a National Leader of Education, or successful curriculum innovation. But without some conditionality, the pupil premium is in danger of being a damp squib. Unless it does so, the Treasury will start to question the value for money in continuing to raise the level of the premium at a time of austerity.
The coalition has made a lot of noise about social mobility. It has ostensibly put some money where its mouth is, with the pupil premium. But it has not - as yet - joined the dots of its various policies to ensure that it makes the impact it says it wants to see in the results achieved by the poorest pupils. It must start to do so.