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The mysteries of how to get into the West London Free School

The Admissions Process for the West London Free school is currently shrouded in mystery.

Let’s look at what their consultation book says in some depth. The first important statement on page 7 says:

“We want to ensure that the school serves local families and for that reason a significant percentage of places will be allocated on the basis of proximity.”

Crucial point: it isn’t clear where “local” is. Is this starting from Toby Young’s home?

The booklet continues to state:

“The remaining places will be awarded by lottery, with a majority being allocated to those who live within a three-mile radius of the site, and a smaller number to those within a five-mile radius. In this way, we anticipate that over half the places will be taken up by residents of Hammersmith and Fulham. 10% of children will be admitted based on their aptitude for Music and, in accordance with the School Admissions Code, priority will be given to children with SEN statements and children in care.”

There’s so many caveats here, where to begin! There’s a 3 mile radius, then a 5 mile one, for a lottery; how will these lotteries be administered? I find this bit very confusing.

Added to which there is a 10% selection on the basis for Music: this is well known “covert” (some would say overt) test for getting clever, socially advantaged children; it’s much used by private schools.

To make things even more complicated, the school is not going through the normal procedure of having admissions “going through the LA”:

“Applying for a place at the West London Free School in 2011 will not affect your chances of securing a place at your first choice of Local Authority school. You won’t use the Local Authority form to apply to our school, but a separate application that we will send to you.”

I did a little bit of snooping of my own and emailed for some information on the basis that my son is in Year 6 and I might be interested in sending him there. I got Toby Young straightaway who rumbled who I was immediately (that I was part of the LSN) but nevertheless he sounded keen to have me apply. It was at that point I told him I was sending my son to the local comprehensive but was interested in hearing about how the admissions procedures for his school worked. He hasn’t got back to me yet. I definitely will be interested to know what he has to say about this, because my view at the moment is that overwhelmingly this admissions code is going to benefit middle class parents who are wised up about jumping through the various hoops that have been set up to stop poorer and/or less wised-up parents from applying.

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  1. Francis,

    I have to take my hat off to your and Fiona’s ability to twist the words in our consultation document to paint the WLFS in an unflattering light. The purpose of admitting 75% of the children via lottery, as I’m sure you know, is to make it harder for middle class parents to game the system to secure places for their children at the school, not easier. That’s why the last government was in favour of lotteries. And you imply that admitting 10% of our pupils according to their aptitude for our specialism is a device we’ve filched from the private sector when, as you also know, it’s something any state secondary school is entitled to do.

    The fact that you have to distort the truth to make your point suggests you know that if you were more faithful to the truth your arguments wouldn’t stand up. But hey ho. I know your agenda is not to promote good, local schools with inclusive admissions policies – if it was, you’d be four square behind the WLFS – but to preserve state control over taxpayer-funded education for ideological reasons.

    Are you a member of the SWP by the way? Or Respect? It never ceases to amaze me how many of the opponents of free schools are.

  2. How will they test aptitude for music? How many children who are a whizz on the tabla or dilruba but can’t read Western musical notation are likely to be admitted?

  3. I’m glad you raised that Helen. The musical aptitude test is going to be carried out by a nearby comprehensive that has a tried-and-tested system in place and consists of a hearing test and nothing else. The test has been designed so as to give no advantage to any child who has any prior knowledge of music of any kind precisely in order to eliminate the bias you’ve identified. It’s an aptitude test, not a test of ability or knowledge.

    • Toby, there are still some questions that it would be good to have answered.

      1. What specifically is the criteria for being local in your area in Ealing?
      2. Why the 3-mile and then 5-mile radius lottery? Who and how will the lottery be administered? Who gets to see who is on the lottery? Furthermore, how can you say that your school is local when it has such a big catchment area?
      3. What will the musical aptitude test consist of? Will the musical aptitude test be open to all interested London residents.

      I would certainly like to celebrate your school if it was a local school with a fair admissions’ policy and wasn’t looking like it was creaming off the best pupils for itself, and therefore increasing social segregation. You are being funded by the taxpayer and it’s fair enough that you are accountable to how our money is being spent.

      I am not a member of the SWP, or Respect. I actually voted Lib-Dem in the election because I liked the way they were supporting a fair admissions’ policy: I am very sad that their manifesto policies for school admissions have not been implemented. In many ways, I am a bit “Tory”: I believe in SATS, good discipline, and actually would support more Latin in school — I did it at A Level. Having researched the matter in detail and been trained in Quantitative and Qualitative research methods for my PhD, I have become convinced an unbridled free market in education leads to more social segregation. It’s just not a fair system. We need to relentlessly focus upon raising standards in all schools; I think you’d have been more effective insisting upon Latin and so forth in your local comprehensive, which looked rather good. It certainly would have been much more cost-effective and less divisive.

  4. Laura McInerney says:

    Toby – I notice that you pull up Francis’ charge that you stole the ‘music aptitude’ idea from private schools rather than refuting that it is a covert way of getting socially advantaged children into school. Is this because it’s true that, while it has been allowed in the state sector, it has often had a segregating effect?

    On lotteries – if Free Schools must go ahead I do think this is one of the less damaging forms of admission. But as with you, Francis, I do wonder why a school would have a 3 and then a 5-mile lottery. It’s not confusing, I understand completely how the actual lottery draw would work, I just don’t understand WHY a school would do this. If the creators of free schools are trying to avoid people buying into a catchment area, why not just go for a 5-mile ‘as the crow flies’ lottery from the outset?

  5. Laura McInerney says:

    Helen – agree entirely with your point. I was also going to make the same issue about rapping. I have some amazingly talented Year 7s who can rap with incredible lyricism and an unnervingly good sense of rhythm and melody. Would that also count as musical aptitude?

  6. Who is the admissions authority for this school? Usually the governing body for an own admissions school. Yet there is no information about the governing body available as far as I can see so who is actually making the decision on who to admit? With no governors, no role for the local authority( who will check proof of address and so on) is seems wide open to challenge and possibly abuse!

  7. Our admissions policy isn’t set in stone. We’re still at the consultation stage and are consulting various bodies about our proposed policy. The policy we’re discussing here is the one we’re in the process of consulting people about – and, indeed, if you and your colleagues have any positive suggestions I’d be glad to take them on board.

    What does local mean? Good question, Francis. While academies/free schools are obliged to ensure their intake is “wholly or mainly local”, there’s no clear guidance as to how “local” should be defined. (Or “mainly” for that matter.) We’ve interpreted that to mean that if our school is in Hammersmith and Fulham, then approximately 50% of the pupils should be Hammersmith and Fulham residents and that’s one of the things we’re trying to achieve in the design of our admissions policy. We’re proposing to admit 25% (after giving priority to children with statements of SEN, looked after children and siblings) according to proximity to the site and that will be based on as-the-crow flies, straight-line distance. Of the remaining places, we’d like to admit two-thirds via random allocation within a three-mile radius of the site and the remainder of places via random allocation within a three-to-five-mile radius.

    To answer your question Laura, we have to balance our desire to give as many people in the surrounding area an opportunity to secure a place at the school with the need to ensure the school’s intake is “wholly or mainly local”. We don’t want parents to be able to simply buy a place at the school by buying a house in the catchment area, but we want it to serve the local community as well. The reason for the two-tier lottery is because the site we hope will become our permanent home isn’t situated in the centre of the borough, but close to two neighbouring boroughs. If we allocated 75% of the places via random allocation within a five-mile radius we’d risk more than 50% of our intake coming from outside LBHF. The three-mile radius followed by the donut seems like the most practical way of preserving our desire to admit 75% via random allocation, while satisfying the need to ensure the intake is “wholly or mainly local”.

    As should be clear, we aren’t deliberately over-complicating our admissions policy to make it easier for middle class parents to secure places for their children. On the contrary, we’re trying to make it as difficult as possible for middle class parents to “game” our admissions while complying with the wishes of the DfE and the LA.

    I accept that admitting 10% according to their aptitude for Music is controversial and that most of the people visiting this forum will be opposed to aptitude selection in principle. My view is that while trying to measure aptitude in some specialisms without favouring middle class parents may be difficult, that doesn’t apply to Music. As I’ve said already, the test we’re proposing to use is designed to eliminate this bias (and I would hope that you’d be able to confirm this, Francis, with your quantitative and qualitative research expertise). And our reason for wanting to admit 10% according to musical aptitude is because we know just how vital a contribution a strong core of musicians can make to a school’s ethos. In the words of one head teacher I spoke to, the Music Department is like a “battery” lighting up the whole school. If we can achieve this with a genuinely fair test of Musical aptitude it seems like a worthwhile goal.

    Francis, you asked who would administer our lottery and that’s a bridge we’ll cross once the proposed policy has been approved. But rest assured it will be completely fair and transparent. If it isn’t, we’ll be tied up in time-consuming appeals by disappointed parents for a year and a day. Trust me when I tell you that’s a red herring.

    You make an interesting point about an unbridled free market in education and while your claim may or may not be true it’s a non sequitur since no one is defending that. It’s another red herring to assume that anyone who defends academies/free schools must, ipso facto, be in favour of an “unbridled” free market in education. I’m not and I don’t know anyone in favour of free schools who is.

    The great irony here is that nearly all the people trying to set up free schools – and I’ve met hundreds of them – want exactly what the Local Schools Network wants, namely, good, local, fully inclusive schools. Where parents and teachers are trying to set them up, it’s overwhelmingly in areas that are already heavily segregated, with middle and upper class families being able to secure access to private schools, grammars and faith schools, and non-middle class families facing a lack of choice. The reason for setting up free schools in those areas is to provide parents who don’t happen to belong to a particular privileged group with a genuine choice. I know that your preferred option would be to simply do away with private schools, grammars and faith schools, thereby eliminating parental choice altogether. The problem is, no political party is ever going to embrace that position – it would be electoral suicide. Putting aside the desirability of it, it’s a practical impossibility. So the question is: Given the political facts of life, what can we do to ensure that more parents have access to good schools, regardless of income, ability or faith? I think the answer is to allow parents and teachers to set up free schools. Far from leading to more social segregation – and we could hardly have more than we have at present, with the UK being bottom of the international league tables when it comes to inter-generational social mobility – I think it’s our best hope of combatting it.

    In general, I think we could have a much more constructive debate if you recognised that we all share the same values and objectives instead of pretending that any group that wants to set up a free school just wants to create a middle class ghetto that just their children will profit from.

    • Thanks for this Toby. Your thoughts are much appreciated. There’s a lot to think about in your new response. Perhaps most importantly, I think it’s great that we have a common aim to have “good, local, fully inclusive schools”. Let’s not lose sight of that fact. This is a very important debate to have because it’s going to shape how our children are educated for decades to come.

      I guess the main point is HOW we get to the point where we have “good, local, fully inclusive schools” for all our children. Given the lack of space on this post, I would like to post this response again in a new post and try and deal with it point for point because you’ve packed a great deal in here. I will also leave it here as well. Thanks again.

  8. I think our preferred response isn’t actually to do away with certain types of schools but to speak up for local schools that get rejected out of hand even though they are doing a great job. – Acton High School for example.
    On the admissions issue one of the big flaws in the model of independent state schools is that parents can’t challenge unfairness in the same way as in maintained school ie by going to the Adjudicator so it is possible that some free schools will be a law unto themselves This will inevitably create even more of a two tier system than we have at the moment. All schools should have to abide by the same rules. Anything else is profoundly unfair.

  9. Natacha Kennedy says:

    One of the things that concerns me about “free” schools is that actually it looks like most of them are going to be neither Free nor have any element of Local control over them.

    Effectively they are going to be run by large multinational corporations like Kunskapsskolan, whose headquarters are in Stockholm. In the end this is a million percent worse than having them run by a local education authority. In the end is WLFS going to be run by some corporation who actually have no local interest or connections at all, and who are likely to ignore the voices of parents and pupils?

  10. Laura McInerney says:

    Thanks for the responses to the questions Toby. They helped make the catchment clearer and hopefully the consultation process will flesh out how the lottery can be most fairly organised.

    I’m still very sceptical on the music thing for a whole variety of reasons. Not least because I believe you can make an orchestra with all children. But I appreciate many schools have ‘specialisms’ and they highly value the contribution it makes to school life (even if my experience in schools has been the opposite, they become an unnecessary burden!).

  11. W Smith says:

    Does this mean that any school without 10% of children with an aptitude for music is not worthy?

    Does this mean that a local school is only local to children living in one direction from it, either north south east or west, rather than a radius around it?

    Does a lottery mean that the children living closest to the school will not be able to go to their local school?

    I despair with parents who want the best for the their children regardless of the consequences for their neighbours. With that philosophy underpinning their school vision society does not stand a chance!

  12. Another non sequitur, Fiona, since the WLFS hasn’t started admitting pupils yet. Will someone please try and make an intelligent, meaningful point instead of criticising our school for sins it hasn’t committed?

    • Joanne says:

      Hello Toby Young. I think that the London free school has surpassed it’s self. The vision that you have is brilliant and I would be very proud for my daughter to ware your uniform and say ” yes I go to the London free school” . We are coming for the musical aptitude test. I am not middle class and I don’t have a clue what she is to except. But she has nothing to lose and all to gain. Good luck with your creation and hope it all works for the future.

  13. “We’ve interpreted that to mean that if our school is in Hammersmith and Fulham, then approximately 50% of the pupils should be Hammersmith and Fulham residents”

    Um, if you’ve done the five minutes of research I just have, you’d find that LBHF is particularly low as far as pupils going to school in their own LA is concerned, at about 53%. The average for the city is 78%. Therefore your ‘local’ school is aiming to be bang average for the area and exceptionally low for the city as a whole as far as local intake is concerned. I think it might be time you hired a maths teacher (not least because a five mile circle is 79 square miles, or 13% of London, while LBHF is only 6 and a bit square miles. I do hope you don’t mean ‘diameter’).

    BTW what Toby’s actually appears to be saying is ‘25% local, 50% out to three miles, 25% three to five miles’. I really doubt that’ll result in 50% LBHF given that the borough has a particularly small intake per annum and three miles is as far away as Brentford and Willesden, but hey, since it’s you I’ll take it on trust and go away and crunch the numbers later. On the face of it a random selection in the 28 square mile 3 mile radius circle is not going to produce half of the winners in a 6 square mile part of that, which is what you’d need for the 50% from LBHF target, unless the applications are heavily skewed towards LBHF.

    “The musical aptitude test is going to be carried out by a nearby comprehensive that has a tried-and-tested system in place and consists of a hearing test and nothing else.”

    Cardinal Vaughan, perhaps? They do a similar scheme. Hardly a typical comp, though.

  14. Food for thought.

    Critics of Free Schools: would you support one if it signed up in a binding way to an appropriate commitment on the following:
    – accountability
    – meaningful community(ies) engagement
    – fair, independently monitored admissions
    – inclusion
    – actively seeking positive partnerships with the other local schools.

    Well, would you?

    (Personally, I would struggle to support any school, ‘Free’ or other, that didn’t sign up to these.)

  15. Why does the WLFS need a 75 mile catchment area?!!!

  16. And Pascale – if a school has all the features you outline above , why does it need to be free?
    What you have described is the position in the majority of good, inclusive maintained schools. Come and join us!

  17. W Smith says:

    Exactly Pascale – every school should have that commitment and every child should have that entitlement. Therefore, if all parents worked together to ensure their established locals schools were supported to do this there would be no need to even consider free schools at all. Whilst we continue to collaborate with politicians and their divide and conquer educational policies, many children in our society will be left behind.

  18. alleagra says:

    Francis – just in passing – ‘criterion’ is the singular form and ‘criteria’ is the plural. Just a slip on your part, I’m sure.

  19. Wendy says:

    Some of us are lucky enough to choose where we live. Some of us have to live where we live and make the most of it. When our children fly the nest, where will they live? After they have finished with whatever education has been chosen for them, they will face very different challenges to that of their parents and grandparents, as they embark on the search for homes and jobs. There may well be a lot more young people having to live somewhere that is not their first or even second or third choice of location. Many of them will then choose to start a family. Is it not our duty, to our children and future grandchildren, to have an established, equal and fair education system set in place for all of them? They could well face more job insecurity, higher taxes and less money in their pension pots, but at least we would have left them an education system that they could take for granted, instead of having to continue to fight for it on behalf of their own children. We do have the power to do this. It would be much easier if all parents who are actively interested in establishing the best education for their children worked for all and all together towards a common goal. One problem is that we only get involved when our own children are going to be affected and put all of our passions into changing or manipulating systems to guarantee the best for them instead of the best for everyone. Imagine the voice we could have if all educated, articulate and resourceful parents joined together to ensure provision of the best education possible for all children, to meet the challenges that we have left them and that will continue to emerge during the 21st century.

  20. In reply to Fiona and W Smith, the reason is that there are not enough schools in Hackney, and in many other areas. So the school needs to be ‘Free’ because it is the only way it can come to exist. I know of no other mechanism and I’m afraid the LA have had more than enough chance to sort it out, and failed. Is it fair that they force 2form-entry primaries to become 3-form entry? Is that going to help that school to function well? I am fully supportive of local schools (I’ve already joined LSN Fiona) but the system here is dysfunctional. Nationwide, we have read of a shortage of half a million primary places this September – perhaps you have a view on whether that figure is correct, and what a solution might be. Cheers, Pascale

    • Pascale I don’t know if you have seen the comment from Henry Stewart who is chair of a Hackney Secondary School. He says every primary school child does have a place this year and the shortages you describe don’t exist at the moment.
      If there is a shortage of places in the future, the best way to resolve that problem is to come up with solutions across a given area, not by funding individual groups to set up schools in isolation from their neighbours and with freedoms others don’t have.

  21. This is a useful forum as it’s important to discuss admissions procedures and their regulation, as Free Schools are implemented. It’s good to see Toby Young engaging on here, (but not so much his accusing people of extreme political views, fawnings and so on, and not acknowledging thanks for information proferred.) I think the music specialism does need querying. In our area, most schools have chosen a music specialism so my tone deaf (but otherwise talented) year 6 child is excluded from 10% of places at all her preferred schools. Her peers who can apply because they play instruments are all from the more wealthy families. There are other specialisms that are much more class-neutral. As more schools are freed from local authority control, how can we sure they choose specialisms or develop facilities to meet local needs and fill gaps?

  22. No school be using instrumental music tests as part of their admissions criteria. The Adjudicator has ruled that is a test of ability rather than aptitude. If any schools are doing it – parents can raise objections with the OSA

  23. Thanks Fiona for that information. I didn’t know that. Two of our local schools (neither being local authority controlled) are assessing instrument skill following a music theory test and I assumed that was the norm. One of them has had 600 music place applications so it must take huge resources to manage all those tests. Administering admissions seems to be such a huge drain on resources for popular schools, then marketing to attract applications is equally exhausting for the less popular schools.

    • The Admissions Code still needs more work. The Government is talking about ‘simplifying it’ but it is important that the various prohibited criteria, such as interviews, use of primary school reports etc, are not allowed to resurface. Parents do have the right to refer the admissions criteria of individual schools to the Adjudicator, if they feel the Code is being broken, Sadly many don’t realise this, and some local authorities are reluctant to challenge popular, successful schools, even if that success may be partly due to intake. Do spread the word.

  24. Hi Fiona, thanks for pointing me towards Henry’s comments. I have answered in detail and believe the demand (from the LT) is still very much established, and rising till at least 2015. Unfortunately having just checked the latest LT figures, things have got even worse re intake radii in our immediate vicinity this year.

    As I said to Henry, I am very happy to be persuaded otherwise.

  25. My cousin recommended this blog and she was totally right keep up the fantastic work!

  26. There is a broader problem with free schools than the issues identified above, and it’s my fundamental objection. Even the most ardent supporter of free schools must admit that they are an experiment. Putting money into an experiment when the total available for education is under such pressure seems reckless. Putting aside individual cases for a moment; the policy on Free Schools doesn’t require the locality to have a shortage of school places for the application to be approved. Creating surplus places during a financial crisis (whether the cuts are necessary or not) is also, in my opinion a reckless act. Government involves choices. We don’t have the luxury of funding to support educational experimentation. Government should devote the limited resources it has to support the existing schools.

  27. I’ve just discovered that William Ellis, the school Fiona is the Chair of Governors of, admits 10% of its pupils according to Musical Aptitude:

    Presumably, then, the claim that this is a “well known ‘covert’ (some would say overt) test for getting clever, socially advantaged children” into the school applies to William Ellis, too.

    Pot? Kettle? Black?

    • I am not sure why governors at the school took this decision as it was taken long before I joined the Governing Body , and possibly dates back to the time you were a pupil there. I think my views on aptitude selection are well known but these are decisions for the full governing body , not for one single member, as I am sure you will find out when if you are to become a governor of your new school.

      In the meantime, Toby , I haven’t had a reply for my request that you apologise on the Daily Telegraph website for the false allegations you made about me, my son, the school and the founder members of this site on November 12 last year. When will that be appearing, preferably with a link on the site of the WLFS where I understand it was also posted?

    • Yolanda Willson says:

      Mr Young,
      Your comment here suggest that you want this debate to be personalised. This is not about YOU, so stop making snide responses to others who post here. I appreciate you may be under some stress with all the opposition you have and will continue to receive but try to remember that you should only be addressing what (you consider) is in the best interests of children and their education.

  28. […] the issue has come up before. Fiona, a governor at William Ellis, said a couple of years ago in one of their online spats: ‘I am not sure why governors at the school took this decision as it was taken long before I […]

  29. […] Richard OsleyHamHighFrancis Gilbert […]

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The mysteries of how to get into the West London Free School

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