The publication this week, Secondary school admissions in England: Admission Forums, local authorities and schools by the LSE has brought into question the fairness of school admissions. The report, written by Philip Noden and Anne West from the LSE’s Education Research Group is actually the 2nd of two reports undertaken on behalf of Research and Information on State Education (RISE) looking at school admissions. While this latest report examines the role of Local Education Authorities and, importantly the role of School Admissions Forums (bodies set up to advise LEAs on school admission arrangements taking a particular interest in looked after children and pupils with special educational needs ) it is the non compliance of some schools with admissions code that has captured the attention of recent news reports.
Headlines have included Schools ‘trying to steal pupils’ from the BBC, and from the Guardian; Schools use dirty tricks to attract best pupils. These dramatic headlines refer to some of the practices reported by the LSE researchers. These included a school which altered its admission policy with the effect that children living on a social housing estate now had a much reduced chance of being admitted to the secondary school whose catchment area previously included their neighbourhood. Some schools required parents to complete supplementary information forms, against the Admissions Code. Other schools which were undersubscribed contacted parents to encourage them to reject their offer from a more popular, oversubscribed school. In the case of another school it used proximity as a measure on which to allocate offers. However it did not use the proximity of the child’s address to the school as a criteria which would have been logical. Instead it altered its admissions policy, ranking applicants according to their proximity to a building half a mile away from the school. Even this admissions policy did not break the Admissions Code and the LEA had not objected to this change in policy.
The findings in the RISE report, aren’t, in fact news, and they are not surprising in the context of a quasi market in education fuelled by the A*-C economy. In 2004 researchers from, again from the LSE, including Anne West , co-author of the RISE report published research observing the admissions practices of secondary schools in England. Their analysis revealed that Voluntary Aided and Foundation schools in particular (who have responsibility for their own admissions) adopted criteria which included some groups of pupils while excluding others. While admissions criteria are designed to do just that the concern is that schools are selecting pupils who are likely to maintain or enhance the school’s rating in league tables, and thus ensuring the school remains a popular choice among potential parents. In this study, (published in the Oxford Review of Education) West along with fellow researchers Audrey Hind and Hazel Pennell, observed a range of admission criteria, several of which were inconsistent with local Admissions Codes, including some which they termed “idiosyncratic”, “not clear, objective or fair” (p. 359) and which included, for example admission on the basis of the good conduct of an older sibling. They concluded that schools which controlled their own admissions criteria were in an advantageous position in the quasi market of education. This means that these schools in particular are able to cream off the best pupils; often those from middle class backgrounds, while not selecting those from more deprived neighbourhoods and those more likely to be excluded from school. From a sociological perspective it is possible to see this as an example of the ways in which the education system is implicated in the reproduction of socio-economic inequalities, challenging the common-sense view that education is a route out of poverty.