The penny has dropped: scrap academic and social selection and opt for an ‘ecological admissions test’

19 November 2010
The Times Educational Supplement
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How many teachers really know how the pupils sitting before them actually got there? If you’re teaching in a grammar school, are you aware of the hours of agonised torture your pupils endured preparing for the 11-plus? If you’re in a school that deals with its own admissions, are you aware of all the hoops that parents and pupils have jumped through to meet the complex criteria that these types of schools often insist upon?

I’ve often been shocked to hear just how hard some of my students have worked to get into the oversubscribed schools I’ve taught in, and just how ignorant the pupils from poorer backgrounds have been about the process in the less popular schools where I’ve worked.

Research conducted by Barnardo’s this summer chimes with my own experience: schools that pick their pupils – as opposed to the local authority choosing them – tend to favour those from wealthier backgrounds. Its fascinating report, Unlocking the Gates, reflects increasing social segregation in our schools, noting that half of all poor pupils are concentrated in a quarter of secondary schools, while the top secondary schools take – on average – only 5 per cent of pupils entitled to free school meals (FSM), which is a third of the national average.

Further research by the Government this year has shown that social segregation has a big impact: just 27 per cent of pupils eligible for FSM achieved five A*-C GCSEs or equivalent, including English and mathematics, compared with 54 per cent for pupils who were not.

The Government is aiming to make school admissions fairer with the introduction of a “pupil premium”, giving more money to schools who take socially disadvantaged children. It wants to motivate schools with wealthier student intakes (and therefore better results) to admit more poor pupils. Consultation is going on at the moment about how this will work and a number of models have been suggested.

Leaving aside funding mechanisms, one thing is certain: the pupil premium won’t work unless both overt and covert selection is drastically curtailed. Let me explain why. At the moment, grammar schools only admit a tiny fraction of pupils on FSM. Motivated by the pupil premium, you might find selective schools suddenly taking a special interest in the primary schools in poorer areas, offering things like extra coaching for the 11-plus. Meanwhile, schools that are their own admissions authorities may well be doing their best to cultivate the cream of the pupils on FSM; collaborating with primaries in deprived areas and encouraging savvy parents to apply to their schools. This will mean the selective schools will take the top-achieving poor pupils, leaving the rest of the maintained sector to struggle on with the less able.

It’s obvious we really need to go back to some basic thinking before we can make the pupil premium work. Above all, we need to ask what exactly is a fair admissions system?

I and some other parents, governors and education experts have been moved to set up the Local Schools Network,which aims to look at this age-old question with fresh eyes. Our group seeks to support local all-ability schools, institutions we feel are increasingly under attack in the current political climate. Above all, we’ve thought long and hard about what a fair admissions system would look like.

Firstly, we believe academic and “social” selection is unfair because, as the Barnardo’s report shows, it favours the wealthy at the expense of the poor. The Local Schools Network would like to drag our schooling system into the 21st century by requiring schools to pass an “ecological admissions test”. This means asking does the admissions policy encourage environmental sustainability by choosing pupils who live locally? Furthermore, having an ecological school also means encouraging genuine social diversity within a school population. To do this, we will need to have local authorities – not schools themselves – supervising this process, whether this is by “fair banding” or purely by geography.

Secondly, a fair admissions system must mean great teaching for every child – only excellent pedagogy is admitted. The recent McKinsey Report, which examined schools around the world, noted that “over three years, learning with a high-performing teacher instead of a low-performing teacher can make a 53 percentile difference for two students who start at the same level”.

As a teacher myself, I’ve only recently realised the importance of decent training: I’ve become much effective since I’ve come to see that good teaching is about problem-solving, active learning, and encouraging initiative and teamwork. A real worry about academies and new free schools is that teaching may not be scrutinised like it is in the maintained sector: complacency can flourish behind secrecy and a lack of accountability.

Thirdly, a fair admissions system needs to “admit” parents into school as well. If we are going to get our most disadvantaged pupils to achieve great things, their parents need to stop feeling alienated from the schools their children attend. Programmes such as Families and Schools Together help break down the barriers between home and school by bringing together teachers, parents and children. Research shows that getting parents involved in school is one of the most cost-effective and productive ways of raising attainment among our poorest pupils – and other vulnerable groups as well.

It’s clear, though, that local schools should be at the heart of the Conservative’s much vaunted idea of the “big society”; with the right resources and policies in place it can help increase social mobility, bring our communities together and raise standards across the board. The pupil premium won’t work unless the Government starts to properly support local schools.

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