Me and Sam - an unlikely alliance, or maybe not?

Fiona Millar's picture
Two weeks ago I woke up to a headline I thought I would never read. "Why Fiona Millar is right" by Sam Freedman. For those of our readers who don't know Sam, he is a former policy adviser to Michael Gove, in and out of government. Before that he was at the right of centre think tank Policy Exchange . He is now Director of Research at Teach First, having left the DFE earlier this year. We have been sparring since before the last election, both in public and private, and probably agree on more than some of our Twitter followers might expect. But even so the headline amazed and cheered me because it hints that maybe there is a cross party consensus emerging on the issue of school admissions.

Sam was responding to a blog I had written on the Guardian's Comment is Free page about admissions, following the revealing Sutton Trust report on the top 500 comprehensive schools. The Sutton Trust analysis showed that the social composition of these school was far less disadvantaged than the communities in which they were situated and in the light of that report  we appear to agree on several crucial points. Schools need to be genuinely comprehensive if all children are to flourish; real choice, diversity, widening opportunitites and improving social mobility are undermined if the admissions system is unfair and selective; some "own admissions" schools, not just academies, are exploiting  their "freedoms" in this area; finally house prices, parents who cheat or have the cash  to manipulate the system are routes to a different form of social selection;  On the latter point he claimed I didn't focus enough attention but in fact I have long been a supporter of the lottery idea and think it is a shame that the Coalition has outlawed its use by local authorities ( although bizarrely individual schools are allowed to admit pupils by this method).

So some thoughts on what might happen next. I agree with Sam that the likelihood of any mainstream political party pledging to end use of the 11 plus, which still goes on in 25% of all education authorities, is slim. But that is NO reason to give up explaining and protesting about a system which deems around 80% of children, often the poorest or with SEN, to be failures at 11. This is a cap on the aspirations of those children and in my view a form of child abuse. Inviting grammars and secondary moderns to form federations is not a substitute for abolition of a test those children would still have to sit with all the attendant stress and disappointment that accompanies that process. Comprehensive Future has produced a pamphlet which explains the full effects of the 11 plus, often in the voices of the primary heads from those selective areas. We also look at how it could be phased out over 10 years.

Then there is the issue of social selection. I would still rather describe this as academic and social selection. it is almost ten years since I wrote my first article on this in the Guardian . Was Sam still at university then? Quite possibly. He is certainly much younger than me, with pre-school age children, so understandably lacks my rather jaded approach to this subject. My children have all finished school now but were educated in a part of North London estimated to have more state and private schools per square mile than any other part of Western Europe. Consequently I have seen all the dodges and ruses that parents and schools use at depressingly close quarters. This is why I know that selection by faith, own school banding systems, aptitude, rigging catchment areas and possibly a mix of all four can deliver up a brilliant cocktail of high achieving children in what appears superficially to be a genuinely comprehensive school.

One school that is often held up as a a shining example of outstanding results and high numbers of pupils eligible for free school meals is St Marylebone C o E School. According to last year's performance tables 37.8 % of the pupils were eligible for FSM but  look at their pupils attainment on entry:  57% were high attainers on entry, 38% were middle attainers and only 5% were low attainers. In fact this is a school that is skewed heavily towards the upper end of the achievement/ability spectrum. Its admissons criteria - a mix of aptitute testing, faith criteria AND banding are here. Everything about the way schools like this operate needs detailed scrutiny and then to be addressed via a local admissions policies that ensure no school can engineer itself such a favourable intake, probably at the expense of other neighbouring schools.

It isn't just enough to suggest, as Sam did, that the local authorities should take over managing admissions. In practice the process of actually receiving applications and writing to parents is already handled by the LA in most areas, but that masks increasing numbers of schools with different and often complex admissions criteria, all of which are completely acceptable under the present Admissions Code. What needs to change are the criteria considered acceptable and unacceptable, the powers of both local authorities and the Office of the Schools Adjudicator to investigate how schools use ( and misuse) them and the obligations placed on local authorities and schools to report on school segregation in their areas, then come up with a plan. The RSA Academies Commission has some interesting things to say about this.

After my last Guardian piece on admissions appeared, someone with whom I had campaigned a decade ago contacted me to congratulate me for  just "slogging on" with this. I can't say it has always been easy but it is worth it to see a a younger generation of education activists, from across the political spectrum, starting to question the status quo. Now maybe something will happen.



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