Labour should do more to promote fairer admissions in comprehensive schools and academies. After all, the evidence suggests that lower income students do better academically and socially with a mix of students from different income backgrounds in a school. With most secondary schools now in charge of their own admissions, it is important to recognise that some admissions methods can be fairer than others.
A recent Sutton Trust report showed that the average proportion of pupils on free school meals – a measure of social selectivity and poverty – at the 500 comprehensives that do best on GCSE results is less than half the national average, with 95 per cent taking fewer FSM pupils than their local average. Of the 16.5 per cent of pupils eligible for FSM, just 36 per cent gained five good GCSEs last year, compared with 63 per cent of other pupils.
This suggests social selection is taking place. High house prices can make it unaffordable for many families to live close enough to the most successful schools. This matters because most schools still use proximity to a school as their main admissions criterion.
The statutory Admissions Code, first introduced by Labour, still allows schools to use random allocation (also called ballots or lotteries) and banding across the ability range when they have more applicants than places. Academies can give preference to FSM pupils too. Legislation introduced by Labour also gives FSM pupils a legal right to free transport to a choice of three secondary schools up to six miles from home.
Some successful academies are introducing fairer admissions. Haberdashers’ Askes Hatcham Academy in south London uses a mix of proximity and random allocation. Those living closest to the academy still get in, but others from a wider radius get a chance they would not otherwise have with those places allocated randomly. A quarter of pupils are on free school meals. In Labour Hackney, banding is used to admit pupils to all schools and academies in the borough, helping ensure a fairer intake.
Balloting is neither as unpopular with parents nor as rare as some suggest. Polling by the Sutton Trust has shown that almost as many parents back them as support proximity, when given those two options for popular schools; a majority regard it as the better option for faith schools. Ballots are also used for US charter schools and in cities like Chicago.
With higher house prices close to good comprehensives and academies, the school you go to too often depends on parents’ income. Labour should actively encourage popular schools, particularly in urban areas, to consider ballots or banding, whilst also encouraging applications from a wider social mix. Even better, schools should be encouraged to work together on such approaches with local authorities. That way we could have a fairer – and more comprehensive – school system. Unless our best schools are open to all, we will never improve social mobility.
Conor Ryan is director of research and communications at the Sutton Trust, and a former senior education adviser to Tony Blair and David Blunkett. He writes in a personal capacity.
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