Poorest kids denied access to best schools

The Sutton Trust today highlighted something that won’t get much air time this election. Poorer kids are being excluded from our best state schools.

The Sutton Trust today highlighted something that won’t get much air time this election. Poorer kids are being excluded from our best state schools. This is an inconvenient fact that undercuts our best hopes for education reform. If students from tougher backgrounds cannot access the best provision, then closing the achievement gap becomes considerably harder.

So how does this work in practice? Despite a recent strengthening of the school admissions code (which only became statutory in 2002) many schools still act as their own admissions authorities. This means they can set their own criteria for entrance when the school is oversubscribed (as the best ones always are).

The most common criteria used by schools (and Local Authorities where they are admissions authorities) is proximity. And this has provided privileged access for those who can afford to live nearby, leading to what estate agents call the ‘house price premium’. Nationwide bank estimates that a 10 per cent improvement in exam results adds £4,500 to the price of local homes.

Proxy indicators such as attendance at church or aptitude in a certain subject are also used. According to 2006 OECD data, 29 per cent of all UK 15 year olds were in schools either because of their ability, or a primary school recommendation or their parent’s religious faith. And as today’s report suggest, these indicators tend to benefit those who are better off.

One way of solving this is to use a ballot when schools are oversubscribed. This is both more transparent and gives poorer kids a better chance of getting in. However, it appears decidedly unpopular. The suggestion that a child’s education is subject to a lottery seems an un-winnable argument.

The challenge then is to combine ballots with other reforms that expand choice for everyone and tackle failure hard. Some were highlighted in the Labour manifesto today, such as allowing parents and governing bodies a greater say over when to replace poor management teams.

Other policies could include judging schools not on their 5 A*-Cs but on a progress measure for all students. This will let parents (and administrators) know whether schools are good at stretching the most able and providing support for those who need catch-up, rather than adept at focusing intervention at the D/C borderline.

But however we proceed in education policy, unfair admissions must be tackled. We need to replace a system which is replete with legal disputes and underhand tactics, with one that gives a fairer chance for kids who are excluded from the best schools.

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