By Martin Thomas
Secondary school admissions authorities in London are very pleased with themselves. Only about 5,500 Year Six kids across London have been refused a place at any secondary school they chose; only about 3,000 have no place at all.
Hackney is cock-a-hoop because only 234 kids have been told there is no room for them at their local school, at the school they want, or indeed at any school at all. Camden glows with pride because it has only 159 children denied a school place.
The number of rejections is lower than in previous years; and, anyway, they say, the rejected kids will all eventually be shoe-horned in somewhere.
Who are the rejects? A recent report from LSE finds that “children from minority ethnic groups are disadvantaged in the secondary transfer process...The social class background of children was also found to impact on their success in the competition for places in a similar way”.
The Government’s Education Bill will make this even worse. But the left has to do better than defend the status quo.
In London, the price of a house or flat goes up by £61,000 if it is near a “good” school. However, many well-off streets are right next to poor areas, so the the new de facto 11-plus is more complex than simple rationing-by-house-price.
A recent article in the Guardian (14 March) describes how the de facto selection process works. “You can get a private tutor who will coach your child in the art of passing verbal and non-verbal reasoning tests... or wangle a place on [a ‘good’ school’s] special music, languages, or drama programme... find fresh religious conviction if it will get a priest's signature on the church school admission form... an endless succession of exams and auditions to put your child through”.
The New Labour government has introduced many bureaucratic rules supposed to make school admissions fairer. But the LSE report finds that around a quarter of state schools in London use at least one “potentially selective” admissions criterion; that some require admissions forms up to eight pages long; that one-third of local authority admissions officers felt that other authorities were not even complying with the Government’s Code of Practice. Schools and local authorities use dozens of admissions criteria. Further drama follows for kids moving to London in the middle of their schooling. Local authorities tell them that they cannot even apply for a school place until they actually arrive; and then, often, that there are “no places” — with the result (desired result) of keeping them out of school for a couple of months while their parents lodge an appeal.
The first thing needed for a fair system is a big increase in school places. Despite the shortage of school places in London, the education authorities are still closing schools! Any school that suffers a fall in numbers is at risk of being closed and having its land sold off. And then, when the next cohort of children is a bit bigger, there is a shortage. Getting a school place become a scramble, in which those with the sharpest elbows inevitably prevail. For a fair system, most or all schools must operate with some slack.
There also needs to be a single status for all schools, in place of the current maze (specialist, voluntary-aided, foundation, etc. etc.); and massive aid to schools in poorer areas, so that they can pull out of the spiral of being last-chosen both for kids and for teachers seeking jobs. The Academies programme has shown that “throwing money at the problem” does work here: shiny new schools built on the sites of rundown old ones, become popular. And you can have shiny new schools without closures and without all the downsides of Academies.
Local authority and school admissions offices should be abolished in favour of an objective system. In France, every child is directed to their local school as defined by the “school map”; in Australia and in Finland (the country which always tops international ratings of school achievement), you can choose your school (but usually choose the local one). Both systems require some “slack” to work, but both are possible. Choice is better, because it is more flexible, and softens the tendency to consolidate ghettoes. (In France, for example, the schools in poor areas are full of very young teachers who can’t yet get jobs in better-off areas. So the schools suffer; so the areas stay poor...)
A school for every child; every school a good school; an end to SATs, league tables, GCSEs, AS and A levels!