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?


  1. Hi Sam,
    "...the school system needs to be genuinely comprehensive if all children are to get a good education" - given this, and the scale and nature of educational reform which *has* been possible, why do you think it's the case that "no politician is going to take the political hit required to convert the remaining grammars to comprehensives"?
    (or, indeed, replace the word 'grammars' with 'independents'?)
    How would you respond to the query that, without a fully comprehensive education system, any other reform of school systems and admission policy is tinkering at the edges?

  2. There's just no political upside to abolishing grammars (just ask David Willetts - and he didn't even suggest that...) I think moving towards fairer intakes while giving significant extra resources (via an expanded pupil premium) to deprived areas is the most realistic course...

  3. Who cares about whether an immediate political upside exists - because that is after all what you're talking about, a short-term, opportunistic electoral advantage - let's just get on and abolish them for the longer term benefit of far more children.

  4. And why couldn't the school responding to demand from parents who can't afford to move be set up by the LA as a maintained school? Why does it *have* to be a free school? After all, their record so far is no great shakes and surely you're not that ideologically rigid, Sam, that you'd forbid another sort of school provider from furnishing what can be as good if not better an education.

  5. Schools should be required to 'reserve' x% of places as governor places, where x% reflects the % of disadvantaged families in the area. These places, could then be offered to children out of the catchment area as they would be allocated by governors, taking deprivation levels into account. This would ensure that families unable to afford to live in the catchment can still access these schools. This has always been one of the (incorrect) arguments for why selective schools are needed - to give the children of less wealthy families access to good schools. If all schools were required to do this, it would be far more equitable than the current system.

  6. Sam, I think this issue is rarely explored fully.
    a) House Price selection is not something you can skirt around. A fully comprehensive raw local school system IS house price selection; I don't think that can be said to be fairer than a system with pockets of selection by testing. In North London people actively buy their local school choices.
    b) Faith schools are more socially selective than grammars. You can't tackle one and not the other.
    c) Mechanisms such as that suggested by Amanda, plus banding and lotteries are just as unpopular with Local School supporters (from my exp, not a proper survey). Pro-comp campaigners rarely argue for lotteries or for House price selection.. but that is what they should be saying.
    d) Free schools in time are just new schools; the admissions issues don't change long-term. It will be parental choice for those who can afford it and not for those that can't even if the relative house price values are different.
    e) Some grammar schools provide niche provision that is not available elsewhere..there is a case for retaining specialist provision of this kind rather than losing it from the state system altogether which would happen if all selection policies ended. In Kent and other fully selective areas, the case is different, which I accept.
    Tackling unevenness in provision is more important than the intake issue. School choice isn't very real for many people. House = School and that's your lot. I'd like a de-polemicised debate on these issues... pragmatism alone rules out a straight-forward 'end selection' solution to fair admissions.
    Tom Sherrington

  7. Just because something is 'unpopular' doesn't mean it shouldn't be done. Selection is quite unpopular in some areas where it exists, and people have to put up with it and work with the system. Further, house price selection is rife in areas around catchment grammar schools. I think lotteries are a mine-field, however many schools already have a practice of allocating a number of 'governor' places and parents know how many these are. It effectively reduces the PAN for the distance based criteria. It is clear to everybody and if enforced for ALL schools would go a long way to achieve Sam's desire to provide 'choice' to everybody.

  8. Isn't this all missing the point? School "choice" is a mirage - you can really only send your child to a school relatively near your home. Choice seems to do nothing for the improvement agenda either, as it assumes that market forces will drive up performance and schools are simply not like Tesco stores. Shouldn't we simply abandon choice, set up catchment areas for all schools, and then spend our time, energy and resources making sure that ALL schools are excellent?

  9. BTW I found the hospital analogy to be very weak. Surely you realise that hospitals are full of doctors and nurses, and that they make sick people well (most of the time), whereas schools are full of teachers who help children learn? I would have hoped that a government advisor would know these things! Hospitals are outcome based - no matter how poorly an arriving patient is, the target end result is a well person. Schools are progress based - an incoming child starts at a certain level of understanding and hopefully leaves with a lot more understanding - this is a relative performance measure. In selective schools children arrive at higher starting points but they still have to make a suitable amount of progress. I find the idea that somehow this is an easier job a very unhelpful oversimplification. Getting the best out of bright children is a specialist job, just like that of supporting children with special needs. I don't think anyone here is saying that bright children don't deserve as good an education as any other child? Selective schools are full of teachers who are experts at working with bright children. When you need specialist health care you are often referred to a hospital that has the right consultant for your condition. This is how our healthcare system works. Patients needs are matched to the right hospital. Education could work in the same way as long as we can make sure that there are enough specialist schools within reach of every child.

  10. @Richard:
    Who cares about whether an immediate political upside exists - because that is after all what you're talking about, a short-term, opportunistic electoral advantage - let's just get on and abolish them for the longer term benefit of far more children.

    It's all very well to say that, but that's the difference between government and politics. The DfE might want to push comprehensive education and get rid of selection because of long-term good, but if the ruling party thinks it will be politically unpopular in the short term then it will never get off the ground.

    (As Sir Humphrey said, "To the Conservatives, we explain that selective education is expensive; to Labour, we explain that it is divisive; we have a good relationship with all the unions, and we educate our own children privately")

    While selection by house price is hard to avoid, it can be ameliorated by enlightened town planning and periodically redrawing catchment areas – this is easier to achieve at secondary level where you have more flexibility. Of course, that can only happen when there is a coordinated approach to place allocation that is not controlled by anyone with a vested interest, ie schools.

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