CONSULTATION RESPONSE OCTOBER 2005
The Government launched a consultation on the draft School Admissions Code of Practice, School Admission Appeals Code of Practice and assorted regulations on 26 July, closing on 18 October. Below is a copy of my response:
Note on the consultation
I was disappointed that the 12 week consultation was launched just before the summer holidays on 26 July and without a press release. Point 1.4 of the Cabinet Office Code of Conduct on Consultation states that “Departments should consider the specific circumstances of their stakeholders and consider longer consultation periods at certain times, for example during the summer holiday period.” I request that a four week extension be given to the consultation and that this be publicised including via a press release.
Conclusions and Recommendations
Para 4. The Code should be made mandatory so that allocations policy is not left to the discretion of schools that are under pressure to keep up their reputation. The legislation necessary for a mandatory code could be included in the forthcoming Education Bill.
Para 13. Assessment of whether a particular looked-after child should be treated as being of their particular faith should be waived and faith schools should be required to give looked-after children priority irrespective of faith.
Para 14. Selection on religious grounds should be phased out. In the interim it should be restricted and there should be a nationally fixed quota of places in faith schools available to children of other/no faith.
Para 16. The original requirement in the Code which seeks fairness for parents who are only seeking a place at a non-selective school should be re-instated.
Para 21. I am very attracted to the idea of a lottery but it needs further testing and exploration to check that it can, in practice, work both fairly and maintain schools with a local connection. The idea has not been sufficiently explored in the Draft Code.
Para 29 The facility for state funded schools to admit pupils on the basis of aptitude tests should be withdrawn. This would also assist with reducing the burden of testing on children.
Para 31. It should be explicit that interviewing of parents or children should not take place rather than just describing this as poor practice (except for boarding schools interviewing solely for the purpose of assessing the suitability of the child for a boarding place).
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End academic, aptitude and faith selection
1. The School Standards and Framework Act 1998 prohibits the introduction of new academic selection except for fair banding. It is logical to extend the assumptions behind this prohibition to existing academic selection. We need a national, fair and objective admissions policy which does not permit schools to be wholly or partially selective on grounds of faith, academic ability or aptitude (except for fair banding by Local Education Authority). Given that Government is unlikely to take the logical step of ending all such selection, I would like to submit the following comments:
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Mandatory code of practice to create a uniform, fair national system
2. The Code should be mandatory. All admission authorities, including foundation schools and City Technology Colleges should be required ‘to act in accordance with’ the Code, rather than simply have to ‘have regard to’.
3. League tables provide a disincentive for schools to allocate their fair share of places for children in care, ‘hard to place’ children and children with special educational needs. A fair system, applied to all schools funded by the state, would help the heads of less popular schools that face the difficulty of raising standards while parents of pupils who would be easiest to teach do all they can to try and ensure their children go to favoured but oversubscribed schools, including being willing to move house.
4. The Code should be made mandatory so that allocations policy is not left to the discretion of schools that are under pressure to keep up their reputation. The legislation necessary for a mandatory code could be included in the forthcoming Education Bill.
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Open up the admissions of faith schools
5. In encouraging faith schools, the government believes that the distinct ethos and character of faith schools helps them perform better. I would challenge this conclusion. Any selective school can achieve better than average results, and church schools are usually selective. They take less than their share of deprived children and more than their share of the children of more ambitious parents, a point the Government should be well aware of, as Ofsted said at the time the Government was expanding the number of faith schools in 2001 "Selection, even on religious grounds, is likely to attract well behaved children from stable backgrounds," This covert selection goes a long way towards explaining their apparent academic success.
6. I do not accept the assertion that the ethos of church schools is somehow superior to that of non-denominational schools where staff show just as much love and professional dedication. It is our comprehensive schools, genuinely open to applications from all races and religions that have the authority to claim that they have at heart the good of our whole society.
7. Religious schools discriminate against everyone not of that faith - in their admissions and employment policies, their curricula and their assumptions about their religion. In my constituency, for example, there are two Catholic secondary schools. One has not taken non-Catholics for many years and the other until recently was admitting children from other faith groups (though not of no faith) including many Muslim children. However, this mixed intake was at a time when the school’s reputation was low (there having been a scandal involving a previous head teacher). As their reputation has grown (for which the Head and staff are to be congratulated), fewer and fewer non-Catholic children have been accepted to the point that, this year, even Catholic pupils living locally but who did not go to a Catholic primary school have been excluded. Such school cease to be a part of a local community – as is also the case with grammar schools in my constituency, a recent statistic I was given by the Head of a grammar school in my constituency was that 59% of pupils came from outside Birmingham.
8. Some faith-based schools will not even try to serve the whole community and will divide children not just by religion but also ethnically. Northern Ireland and Bradford are examples of what happens to communities where children are educated separately and grow up knowing little of each other. In the wake of the 9/11 atrocity in New York and the 7/7 bombings in London it is even more important that all groups in our society feel included and are given every possible opportunity to integrate.
9. I uphold the right to freedom of belief and understand the desire of parents to bring up their children with the family's beliefs. However, it is not the job of publicly funded schools to instil a religious faith in children and the state is not obliged to provide schools catering for every shade of belief or philosophy. The state has its own interest in ensuring that children grow up to be responsible and capable citizens. Schools should, of course, teach about religion and philosophy but they should do so in an objective, critical, and pluralistic manner.
10. We need to have all our children educated in schools that believe that concern for others is not a Christian virtue, or a Jewish or Islamic virtue, but a human virtue; and where all the faiths are equally respected.
11. Of course, given the existence of so many religious schools in this country, it would be naive to think that these can be abolished overnight but we should be aiming at admission policies that work towards reintegrating these schools by requiring quotas for intakes to include a proportion of children of other faiths and none. Admissions arrangements of faith schools must be more open.
12. Paragraph 1.5 of the consultation particularly welcomes comments on how the requirement to give priority to looked-after children might apply in relation to faith schools.
13. Assessment of whether a particular looked-after child should be treated as being of their particular faith should be waived and faith schools should be required to give looked-after children priority irrespective of faith.
14. Selection on religious grounds should be phased out. In the interim it should be restricted and there should be a nationally fixed quota of places in faith schools available to children of other/no faith.
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Remove the changes that give double preferences to parents who want grammar schools
15. The current Code requires that, in areas where there are grammar schools, parents should have to express a preference as otherwise it is ‘unfair to parents who only want a place at a non-selective school’. It is very disappointing that the Draft Code reverses this requirement when it says ‘it is good practice for parents to be able to know the outcome of selective tests before the closing dates for application to schools under co-ordinated schemes’. This effectively means that parents who want grammar schools get two preferences if their children fail the grammar school test. This is unfair.
16. The original requirement in the Code which seeks fairness for parents who are only seeking a place at a non-selective school should be re-instated.
17. The system is also unfair as parents of those children who pass the grammar school test have the advantage of knowing further in advance which school their children are going to, unlike parents who have to rely on the later outcome of co-ordinated schemes.
18. In selective areas such as Kent, schools taking all abilities have required parents to put them as ‘first preference first’ so that they can give priority to parents who want all ability schools. The draft refers to this as ‘not working well where there is an element of selection by ability or aptitude’. If selection were ended there would be no need for all ability schools to implement this policy and equal preference throughout co-ordinated schemes would be fairer.
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19. Fair banding - placing applicants into ability bands on the basis of non-verbal reasoning tests and admitting a representative proportion from each band - is a way of ensuring the intake of a school is genuinely comprehensive. I understand this has been successful in the case of Thomas Telford School but would only be possible in oversubscribed schools. However, that would be precisely the place to start - but see below on random allocation.
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Use of a ‘lottery ‘or ‘random allocation’ system for oversubscribed schools
20. The idea of adopting a lottery, or random allocation, for heavily oversubscribed admissions is an interesting one, that does have the good intention of trying to avoid social segregation. Pulling names out of a hat overcomes the advantage some pupils have over others. However, it can also mean that some students do not get into their nearest school. Therefore any ‘lottery’ system would need to be within a catchment area that keeps the intake fairly local but is wide enough to avoid the problem in some areas of parents buying up the houses near the most desirable schools. This idea might be less necessary if the concept of fair banding were adopted for oversubscribed schools. Conversely, random allocation would be less bureaucratic and not likely to be seen as “social engineering”.
21. I am very attracted to the idea of a lottery but it needs further testing and exploration to check that it can, in practice, work both fairly and maintain schools with a local connection. The idea has not been sufficiently explored in the Draft Code.
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Negative impact of ‘choice’ policy on admissions
22. The word ‘choice’ is often used by ministers. However, when the real meaning of the policy behind this seductive word is unravelled (who wouldn’t want to be able to choose if something better is on offer?) it is not compatible with an objective and fair national admissions policy. Is it possible or desirable for there to be competition in state education so that all people can have such a choice? To have choice for everyone, you have to have spare capacity so that the ‘best’ schools don’t become oversubscribed.
23. The dogma of choice conspicuously fails to answer questions like ‘Who ends up going to the least desirable schools?’. In oversubscribed schools, the satisfaction of one person's choice necessarily denies that of another. If everyone is allowed to choose, schools would have to rapidly expand and contract as they fell in and out of people’s favour. In practical terms this is certainly both wasteful and inefficient and probably impossible which is why talk of choice for all is, in fact, illusory.
24. The impracticality of essential institutions like schools operating at spare (and varying) capacity means that some people won’t get to choose as the most desired schools fill up. The ‘choice agenda’ is also incompatible with social justice on the grounds that some people are better equipped to make choices than others. What about the children who don’t have a savvy parent to negotiate the education market on their behalf?
25. Parents don’t really want the anxiety of trying to get their children into the ‘best’ schools. What they really want is for their local school to be of a high standard. I am frequently contacted by anxious parents going through the Local Education Authority appeal process, who rarely succeed. It is a myth that the mirage of ‘choice’ drives up standards.
26. People just want quality local schools that they can rely on and as former Education Secretary Estelle Morris recently said on the Today Programme this is what the extra investment in education should be going towards.
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End selection at 11 and the local grammar school ballot system
27. Government policy is that if local people want to keep academic selection at age 11, then this justifies or somehow makes acceptable its continued existence. However, whatever the outcome of a local ballot, the existence of academic selection at age 11 remains an unfair and unacceptable reality for those children who are subsequently branded a failure at age eleven.
28. Academic selection at 11 should be ended because it is unfair and detrimental to the esteem of individual children who fail the test and there is no evidence that it produces better results overall.
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Withdraw the facility for state funded schools to admit pupils on the basis of aptitude tests
29. In its response to the Education and Skills Committee, the Government suggests that it is possible to screen out any incidental ‘ability effect’ of aptitude tests by ensuring the pupils selected are spread across the whole ability range. However, there is not an explanation of a means by which aptitude can be assessed without reference to ability. The facility for state funded schools to admit pupils on the basis of aptitude tests should be withdrawn. This would also assist with reducing the burden of testing on children.
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Strengthen the Draft Code on interviewing
30. The current Code is very clear and states that:
“no parents or children should be interviewed as any part of the application or admission process, in any school except a boarding school.”
However, the Draft Code contains the potentially weaker formulation:
“It is poor practice to interview parents or children as any part of the application or admission process in any school except a boarding school”.
31. This change should be reversed and the original formulation used. It should be explicit that interviewing of parents or children should not take place rather than just describing this as poor practice (except for boarding schools interviewing solely for the purpose of assessing the suitability of the child for a boarding place).
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