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Letters to the DCSF on Admissions

January 2009

In response to the announcement of the 'National Challenge' which included effectively branding a number of Birmingham schools as 'failures' I have exchanged numerous letters with the Department for Children, Schools and Families about admissions policies and their impact on school performance. Extracts from these letters are shown below, some of which refer to Alastair Rae, a constituent   and Governor of Dame Elizabeth Cadbury College, who raised concerns about this issue:

25 March 2008 - Letter to Ed Balls

One of the key points Mr Rae made which has not been addressed was that there are particular problems in a situation, such as Birmingham, where much of the top band has already been creamed off by grammar schools.  Schools which operate ‘fair banding’ admit into the top band from a very large catchment area, which means that other schools will either have to adopt fair banding also or have an entry whose ability range is heavily skewed to the low academic achievement end.  I should be grateful for your response to this point.

You will note that I have tabled a written Parliamentary Question asking what assessment has been made of the impact of allocations to Academy schools by pupil banding on neighbouring schools with results below floor target, when places to existing oversubscribed schools are allocated on distance from school or by faith.  I would welcome any comments you have on this question in your response to this letter.

20 June 2008 - Letter to Jim Knight

You are right that grammar schools “cream off” the most able pupils, which begs the question: why is the Government keeping existing grammar schools?  The fact that the 7 grammar schools in Birmingham have done this creaming off means that there is a large imbalance in the ability range in the remaining state schools.  This imbalance is further exacerbated if a proportion, but not all, of remaining schools adopt a “fair banding” admissions policy.  Alastair Rae’s concern is that, if academies in Birmingham operate a fair banding admissions policy, they force other schools either to do the same or to miss out on their “fair share” of the able students who have not been creamed off by the grammar schools.  Whilst it may be open to any admission authority to adopt fair banding arrangements, only oversubscribed schools can operate such a system, so fair banding is not open to all schools.

In a city like Birmingham, the intake of undersubscribed, “below floor target” schools that cannot operate fair banding will be further skewed towards the lower ability range partly because academies that operate fair banding do so from a very large catchment area.  Despite the fact that fair banding means academies also admit lower ability pupils, the size of the catchment area means higher ability range pupils who live some distance from an academy but near to a below floor target school are creamed off.  Furthermore, the intake of the below floor target school will be further distorted by faith schools and the ability of parents with greater financial resources to move near to oversubscribed schools that continue to allocate places according to distance.

In your letter you state that the reasons why a number of schools are below the floor target vary and cannot be put down simply to demography or admissions policy.  This is true, every school will face unique circumstances.  However, research - such as that reported by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation last year - shows that there is a clear correlation between poor performance and poverty[1].  Does the Government dispute this correlation and if so, on what basis?  If the Government deny that demography and admissions policy play a crucial role where schools under-perform, we are in danger of failing to provide a strategy to tackle the link between poverty and under-achievement. 

On the issue of under-performance, your letter refers to intensive support tailored to each school’s needs through the National Challenge Programme but why is this not being accompanied by a broader strategy to tackle the imbalance in our schools’ intake of children living in poverty?  What are your views on such a strategy including, not only the abolition of grammar schools but also encouragement of a ballot system for oversubscribed schools?

Since receiving your letter, it has been announced that every school must reach the 30% target of pupils achieving at least five good GCSE’s by 2011 or face closure.  This has provoked Early Day Motion 1751, which I have signed, criticising the publication of the list of the 638 schools in England that do not currently meet the 30% target, thereby officially branding below floor target schools as “failing”.  Ed Ball’s announcement that he will close up to 270 of these schools, suggests that a blanket approach is being taken by ministers.  I do not believe this will adequately address the root causes of poor performance in different schools. 

National Challenge schools in or on the edge of my constituency

There are five schools on this list in or on the edge of my constituency.   One of these is the above-mentioned Dame Elizabeth Cadbury College.  Alastair Rae has explained that the general picture on GCSE results over the last 5 to 10 years has been improvement with the odd dip, one of which was in 2007.  In 2007, the English and Maths results were adversely affected by specific staffing problems, including vacancies at key times.  These staffing issues are being addressed.  Nevertheless, I have no doubt that the school will continue to have a better than average value added score.  It is very disappointing that the DCSF has effectively branded the school a failure when the teachers, governors and pupils are doing good work.

Two of the schools of the five mentioned above have both a below 30% figure on GSCE attainment and a below average value added score, Kings Norton High School and Moseley School.  Kings Norton High serves one of the most deprived areas in the City and has a poor reputation that makes attracting quality staff difficult.  It is exactly the sort of school that needs intensive individual support - which has already begun to be put in place - and significant extra resources.

Moseley School I know well as both of my sons had their 11-16 secondary education there.  Unlike Kings Norton, it has not suffered from lack of demand, which has perhaps led to some complacency, and teaching standards in some subjects need to improve.  I cannot see that “naming and shaming” is the best way of attracting good teaching staff and it would not be practical to close this school without re-opening due to high demand for school places in this area with a high South Asian (predominately Muslim) population.

Another school on the list is Turves Green Boys’ School.   A constituent, Graeme Currie, a teacher there with 34 years’ experience has contacted me to express his dismay at Ed’s announcement.  Mr Currie is proud to work at Turves Green, an oversubscribed school described by OFSTED in 2007 as good and with an added value of 1012.2.  He explained to me that, last year, a difficult year group saw the school’s results drop below the arbitrary 30% standard by about two thirds of one pupil, giving them a 29% GCSE rating and now the school has been labelled as ‘failing’.  It is clear from Mr Currie’s email that the ‘failing’ label is extremely bad for morale, as well as unfair.

Stigmatising schools

On the concern that the type of list the DCSF has published is counterproductive, you may have seen the letters page of the Guardian on 12 June (copy enclosed for ease of reference).  Will 270 heads be sacked and 270 governing bodies dissolved?  On what evidence does the DCSF base its decision that closure will result in improvement rather than chaos?  I would particularly draw your attention to the letter from John Freeman, Director of Children’s Services in Dudley.  What is your justification for refusing to release substantial capital funding to schools unless they become an academy or trust?  Birmingham is in exactly the same situation.  Plans to turn Kings Norton High into an academy have been dropped after intervention by your officials because of low demand for places there.  Yet closure would withdraw much-needed facilities from its deprived catchment area, which is included in the New Deal for Communities programme.

I did note from Ed’s speech yesterday, to the National College for School Leadership (NCSL) Annual Conference in Birmingham, that he was adamant that “this is not about labelling National Challenge schools as failing schools.  I have never described them as failing schools.” and he gave the welcome acknowledgement that “In fact, I would say that at least a third of these schools are quite the opposite – schools that are improving fast with great leadership and high aspirations that are not only on track to reach the benchmark, but to go far beyond it”.  However, Ed and other Ministers should have known well that media like the Daily Mail would present the published list as one of “failing” schools and would highlight possible closure plans. 

This has unnecessarily generated an adverse and counterproductive impact on the people who matter most - the teachers and pupils (as Mr Currie’s communication clearly shows).  Today, just as I was finalising this letter, I received an email from a governor of one of the National Challenge schools in my constituency who has just met with the Head.  Despite Ed’s speech, the Head feels strongly that classification as a NC school is a stab in the back and that the Government has betrayed their earlier policy to base judgements on context and value added.  The Head feels that being known as a NC school will just make it harder to recruit students with the ability help the school to achieve the Government's targets - particularly as they will be competing with nearby academies.

Selection and how we judge schools’ performance

Before Ed’s speech, I received a letter from him dated 10 June about the National Challenge (NC).   The language in Ed’s letter, as in yesterday’s speech, is far more encouraging about schools which operate in difficult circumstances and does show some appreciation of the fact that many below floor target schools take pupils with low prior attainment.  I was pleased that Ed’s speech explicitly accepted that “selection does make it more difficult” for neighbouring non-selective schools and that secondary modern schools “have a much more deprived intake than their neighbouring grammar schools – over six times more in fact”.  Yet Ed doesn’t concede that this should affect how the other non-selective schools should be judged.

This links into the question of alliances with other schools, who are judged as ‘better’ and having something to teach the NC schools to help them achieve the Government’s target.  Whilst the Government admit that grammar schools are “creaming” off pupils and as Ed put it yesterday, secondary moderns “have more to do”.  

I am concerned, therefore, that Ministers apparently still want to use grammar schools as having something to teach non-selective schools with poorer GCSE results.   I gather this from the comments, attributed to Ed in the 11 June edition of the Birmingham Evening Mail: “It may be grammar schools that form these foundations.  It would be very encouraging if grammar school heads and governing bodies want to play a role with other schools in their area”.  However, a comment in Ed’s speech seems to pull back from this somewhat, as he states that foundations are more likely to be with other secondary moderns rather than grammar schools, as the former “really understand the challenge of leadership in these schools”.  This is a welcome acknowledgement and I should be grateful if you could tell me what measures will be put in place to ensure schools that do not benefit from an atypically bright cohort and who genuinely have the most to share with struggling schools are the ones that are encouraged to form foundations?

Whilst Ed’s letter and speech do give some important recognition of the external challenges facing schools on the published list, I was concerned at the inclusion of a table of the two schools actually in my constituency whose GCSE results are below floor target (both referred to above, Dame Elizabeth Cadbury and Kings Norton High).  The impression that the hard work that is being done by schools is going unappreciated is reinforced by the fact that the table Ed sent did not include the value added statistics.  The information sent with the letter also included a map, which highlighted the areas with the highest percentage of schools below the 30% target, again, taking no account of the value added statistics.  Why were these left out of the analysis?

16 October 2008 - Letter to Jim Knight

Fair banding’s effects on surrounding schools

As with previous correspondence in which I have raised the concerns of my constituent, Alastair Rae, about the impact of certain schools adopting fair banding on other schools in the area, you failed to directly respond.

The issue is that in areas like Birmingham, where grammar schools have already ‘creamed off’ the most able pupils, oversubscribed schools (which may include academies) are able to use the fair banding admissions policy as a means of obtaining more able pupils from a large catchment area. Even though such schools will also have to admit a proportion of average and less able students, they will nonetheless gain an advantage over other schools in the area that are not oversubscribed and so cannot make use of fair banding. This leads to less popular schools in these areas admitting a much lower proportion of able pupils than would be the case under a ballot system, or even a system based purely on school proximity.

What assessment have you made of the impact of schools operating fair banding systems on other schools in the area that are unable to do so, particularly within large catchment areas?

This effect almost certainly plays a part in the levels of achievement at those schools in or on the edge of my constituency that were listed as part of the National Challenge. Since the list did not make concessions based on such factors, whilst taking little account of the value added statistics of these schools, it appears to be a shallow and glib assessment of success.

Efforts to decrease socio-economic segregation

I should be interested to hear more about the measures that will be taken through the National Challenge to overcome the difficulties that schools such as Kings Norton High have with attracting and retaining high quality staff. However, my deeper concern is that not enough focus is being placed on the root causes of the stark variation in performance between schools.

It is clear that placing the emphasis on ‘choice’ rather than on actively tackling the imbalance in the socio-economic makeup of schools has failed to redress the advantage that children from wealthier families possess. A report from the IPPR last year pointed out that:

 where there is more choice available (measured by the number of nearby schools), school segregation is higher, relative to neighbourhood segregation, in terms of ability and socio-economic background.

The IPPR report also found that schools allowed control over their admissions policy were more likely to be highly unrepresentative of their local area in terms of ability and socio-economic status.

Such findings suggest that despite good intentions, with policies such as fair banding, not enough is being done through the admissions policy to provide equal opportunity to all pupils.

I therefore repeat my request for your views on the need for a broader programme to promote such equality, and the place of ballot systems in such a strategy. 

Continuation of grammar schools

It is not clear from your letter why certain decisions, such as prohibiting any new selection by ability, should be taken nationally, whilst others, such as allowing existing grammar schools to remain, should be taken locally. Insisting on local authority’s autonomy over certain decisions seems particularly strange in light of the Government’s willingness to foist so many other central initiatives upon them.

What criteria are used for deciding which education policy decisions will be taken nationally and locally?

You state that you respect the wishes of local parents where grammar schools do remain. However, you do not mention the wishes of those parents whose children do not attend the grammar schools, but whose schools are impeded by the limited number of more able pupils that remain in the catchment area. In addition, it appears that, intentionally or otherwise, grammar schools are not only selecting by ability, but also by socio-economic factors, as a recent Durham University study, commissioned by the Sutton Trust, points out:

there is a strong suggestion that some bias may be operating in the application or selection processes of grammar schools, which makes

FSM [free school meal] pupils less likely to attend them

Will you be making an assessment of the Durham University study?

Foundation partnerships

Finally, in my letter I asked what measures would be put in place to ensure schools that do not benefit from selection and who genuinely have the most to share with struggling schools are the ones encouraged to form foundations. You did not respond to this question and so I should be grateful if you could directly address this point in your reply.

11 November 2008 - Letter to Jim Knight

Fair Banding

I am glad that you accept that banding by schools with large catchment areas may well impact negatively on other undersubscribed schools in the same area.  You state that such undersubscribed schools would not automatically be more advantaged if the oversubscribed schools adopted another admissions policy such as a lottery.  It may be true that another system would not necessarily advantage undersubscribed schools but it would make them less likely to be disadvantaged than the current scenario.

I am pleased, however, that local authorities will be expected to make clear as to whether banding by some schools is adversely affecting others, and see this as progress on this issue.

Grammar Schools

You state that the Government wishes to let local people decide any changes to admissions policies at grammar schools.  However, my concern is that this is not what happens in practice as it is only the parents of children in feeder schools that get a say.  Because of the wide ‘catchment area’ of grammar schools this excludes many local parents and can include many who are not local at all.  As an illustration of this, King Edwards Camp Hill Boys’ School in my constituency has more that 60% of its intake from outside Birmingham.

Furthermore, you did not respond to my request for an assessment of the Durham University study, commissioned by the Sutton Trust, that suggests that grammar schools’ admissions are skewed in favour of higher socio-economic groups, pointing out that:

there is a strong suggestion that some bias may be operating in the application or selection processes of grammar schools, which makes FSM [free school meal] pupils less likely to attend them

Socio-Economic Segregation

Finally, I do not feel that you fully addressed my concerns about socio-economic segregation in schools and the need for a broader programme to promote equality within the education system.  I repeat my argument from my original letter, in reference to IPPR research:

It is clear that placing the emphasis on ‘choice’ rather than on actively tackling the imbalance in the socio-economic makeup of schools has failed to redress the advantage that children from wealthier families possess. A report from the IPPR last year pointed out that: 

where there is more choice available (measured by the number of nearby schools), school segregation is higher, relative to neighbourhood segregation, in terms of ability and socio-economic background.

The IPPR report also found that schools allowed control over their admissions policy were more likely to be highly unrepresentative of their local area in terms of ability and socio-economic status.

15 January - Letter to Sarah McCarthy-Fry

Grammar Schools

I accept the claim from your previous letter, that the evidence on why grammar schools’ intake is skewed towards a middle-class demographic “remains inconclusive”. However, the factors that you point to clearly play a substantial cumulative effect, and I do not accept that these factors operate “before any potential ‘wealth’ bias in grammar schools’ selection process takes effect”. On the contrary, factors such as these are an integral part of the wealth bias in the selection process.

As a recent BBC investigation[1] so clearly points out, the class background of grammar school applicants has a fundamental impact on their success in the application process due to the ability of more wealthy parents to better prepare their children for the entry examinations. This kind of inherent class advantage permeates the whole school admissions process, from the likelihood of parents spending time and effort finding out about the quality of a school; to the capacity to move to within the catchment area of successful schools; to the ability to ‘play the system’ in order to ensure admission to their schools of choice (which now seems to be taking its toll on the previously high proportion of poor students at academy schools) [2].

As such, the suggestion that grammar schools should remain open and faith and academy schools should be able to operate an independent admissions code at the behest of ‘local parents’ is merely shorthand to maintain a façade that ‘choice’ is the essential factor in admissions policy, concealing the truth that appeasing influential middle-class parents is a principle priority. Since children of wealthier parents clearly have a substantial head-start at the beginning of their education, an admissions policy with even half an eye to social justice and fairness would begin by looking to mitigate this advantage, not facilitate its exacerbation.

Achieving Fairness

Since the Government’s ideas for creating a fairer schools-admission system seems to only extend to ‘levelling the playing field’ on which certain players have a nonetheless dramatic advantage, I thought I might offer a suggestion for more substantial progress.

As discussed above, it is clear that the difference between the sorts of schools for which parents must compete vigorously for a place for their child and those that have been highlighted as inadequate lies to a large extent within the socio-economic make up of their catchment areas, and the admissions policies operating in these areas. Furthermore, I have no doubt that this apparent chasm in quality is exaggerated by the framework within which the ‘success’ of a school is assessed.

Of the 5 schools in my constituency on the National Challenge list, 3 have CVA scores above the 1000 point floor standard. Of the 27 schools from Birmingham on the list, 18 have scores above 1000. I accept that, given the way in which potential employees or students are assessed by companies, organisations and institutions, it is important that pupils leave school with nationally recognised qualifications, so that, as Ed Balls states, they can “go on to further study, work and prosperity” [3]. However, since it seems clear that the aggregate achievement of such qualifications in schools is dependent to a large extent on the background of pupils, it is neither fair nor progressive to focus so heavily on this aspect of a school’s output.

After creating such a complex, nuanced and important measure as CVA, it seems wasteful to limit its application to a caveat in school league tables. Since the schools with high CVAs are evidently achieving significant success considering their intake of students, and those students who succeed within such schools clearly posses natural ability, rather than coaxed and manipulated exam-passing technique, why not give greater credit for such achievements?

Significant funding increases for schools making such strides would be an obvious first step but far more brave and radical would be to replace a simple exam grade with a combined achievement score including a measure of the CVA of the school. Not only would such a score reflect the true levels of achievement but it would also act as an incentive to schools with the luxury of over-subscription to actively diversify their intake, rather than simply taking the most polished applicants. Furthermore, those key middle-class parents who play such an influential role in the schools system may consider sending their children to a less popular school, on the basis that success at a more moderately successful school may actually result in a better final grade.

To return to the National Challenge, I was interested to read today that Liam Nolan, the Headteacher of Perry Beeches School in Birmingham, despite leading the school to the most improved performance in the country this year (from 21% of students getting 5 good GCSEs to 51%), had very few positive words about the National Challenge. Although the school received £15,000 under the scheme to improve, it has now been offered £60,000 as a ‘high performing’ school:

"We have enough advisers... What we need is the finance to buy key staff. If you're a high achiever you get £60,000 if you are in tough circumstances you get £15,000. Outrageous"

Indeed, it seems perverse to give more money to high achieving schools, which, as argued previously, usually already benefit from a wealthier and more parentally-attentive cohort, and less to schools that are struggling, usually due to their more diverse and difficult intake.

I welcome the recent Government focus on addressing social mobility and equality and can see the benefit of schemes such as the ‘Golden Handcuffs’ and the ‘University Outreach Campaign’ in terms of improving the opportunities of some children in poorer catchment areas. However, such measures can only achieve so much when the fundamentals of the system are so skewed in favour of the affluent. As such, I believe that more radical and fundamental measures are needed if we are to truly counter decades of largely-unchallenged inequality and advantage, and including the CVA score in the overall assessment of a school's performance would be an important first step in this process.


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