Saturday, 15 June 2013
Why Fiona Millar is right
OK so I don't think she's right about everything but I agree with a lot of what she says here about school admissions.
She's right to argue that the school system needs to be genuinely comprehensive if all children are to get a good education. And she's right that arguments for diversity of provision and school choice are undermined if the admissions system is palpably unfair. For those of us who think school choice can be an important tool for creating real educational opportunity in disadvantaged communities this is an important challenge.
I've always found it odd that some proponents of choice policies also want more grammar schools. The two are clearly completely incompatible. Imagine a town with two hospitals - the first is allowed to turn away anyone they think looks a bit too sick. The second has to take anyone who turns up. The really sick have no choice in this system - they're going straight to hospital number two. And - to stretch the analogy a little further - what would happen as a result? Hospital number one would get all the easy cases; look good in league tables and have no trouble recruiting staff. Hospital number two would have a much harder job; have to deal with all the deaths in town and struggle to find anyone prepared to work there.
The same is true for schools. Selection simply gives in-demand schools the opportunity to screen out the hardest to help pupils, leaving them to congregate elsewhere. More selection would do nothing to increase the overall number of good school places; it would just distribute them differently, and in a way in which the poorest would lose out most. No politician is going to take the political hit required to convert the remaining grammars to comprehensives. However, they could be encouraged to federate with nearby schools on the model of the Bright Futures academy trust which is built around Altrincham Grammar Girls School. Parents still can't choose AGGS for their child they can at least send them to a school which has access to their staff, facilities and peer networks.
Fiona's also right to challenge academies' freedom to be their own admissions authority. While the vast majority of academies don't abuse this freedom, some do; and it's not an area where there are any obvious educational benefits to autonomy. When the first handful of academies were set up it made sense to protect them from often hostile local authorities who might have used control of admissions to undermine them. Now, though, it's a different story - well over half the secondary schools in the country are now academies and no local authority is academy-free.
I can't see any reason why local authorities shouldn't be given control over academy admissions - at least if academies make up a reasonable proportion of schools in the area. As LAs divest control of schools it makes sense for them to focus on ensuring choice is working and that schools have a fair intake. This means coordinating admissions but also exclusions and special educational needs (academies already have to participate in fair access protocols and take children with a statement of special educational needs). It may also mean working to attract the best academy sponsors into the area. (Lest anyone think this is a change of heart on my part, I said all this back in 2008.)
But enforcing the admissions code more thoroughly would only deal with one kind of unfair selection. It is well established that house prices act as a form of proxy selection. Because most comprehensives select by catchment area wealthier families can buy their way into the best schools; denying choice to poorer families who are displaced. This is much harder problem to deal with (and not one Fiona, or her fellow campaigners, talk about much).
One option would be to introduce cross area lotteries but, while they might have a wonkish attraction, they're highly unpopular with parents and for good reason. It would be such a logistical nightmare that you'd risk the middle classes departing state education en masse for cut price independent schools.
This is where I see the value of free schools. If great providers - usually already involved in running excellent schools - can respond to demand from parents, who can't afford to move, by setting up new schools, then choice becomes more meaningful. The free schools I'm most excited by are those that meet this need in genuinely deprived areas, like Greenwich Free School, Reach Academy in Feltham and King's Leadership Academy in Warrington. It makes sense, in a time of scarce resources, to focus the free school programme much more tightly on these areas over the next few years.
So I agree with Fiona that fair intakes matter and that those who want real school choice should support her campaign for a genuinely comprehensive system. I wonder if she agrees with me that free schools - if properly focused and regulated - can help make this a reality?