Secondary school admissions in England:
Exploring the extent of overt and covert selection
By Anne West & Audrey Hind
Centre for Educational Research
Department of Social Policy
London School of Economics and Political Science
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This report provides an analysis of secondary school admissions criteria in England. A database of 95 per cent of state-maintained secondary schools in England was created and oversubscription criteria recorded on a school-by-school basis. Key findings are presented below.
• Our analysis revealed that some admissions criteria are clear, fair and objective. This is particularly apparent in the case of community schools, which comprise the majority of secondary schools in England.
• However, in a significant minority of schools, notably those that are their own admission authorities – voluntary-aided and foundation schools – a variety of criteria are used which appear to be designed to select certain groups of pupils and so exclude others. These include children of employees; children of former pupils; partial selection by ability/aptitude in a subject area or by general ability; and children with a family connection to the school.
• We found that specialist schools were more likely than non-specialist schools to report selecting a proportion of pupils on the basis of aptitude/ability in a particular subject area (5.9 per cent versus 1.7 per cent). However, voluntary-aided/foundation schools were far more likely to select on this basis than community/voluntary-controlled schools (8.8 per cent versus 0.3 per cent). The issue of partial selection by aptitude/ability is thus less a function of specialist school status and more a function of whether schools are their own admission authority.
• It is noteworthy that criteria giving priority to children with medical or social needs were given for nearly three-quarters of schools; however, community/voluntary controlled schools were far more likely to include this as a criterion than voluntary-aided/foundation schools.
• Similarly, nearly two-fifths of schools mentioned as an oversubscription criterion, pupils with special educational needs. Again, these were predominantly community/voluntary-controlled schools as opposed to voluntary-aided/foundation schools.
• The practice of interviewing parents and/or pupils as part of the admission process will not be permitted under the new Code of Practice; at the time of our study, 10 per cent of voluntary-aided schools reported interviewing parents and 16 per cent reported interviewing pupils.
• Some grammar schools, which are by definition academically selective, also use a range of practices which make such schools even more ‘exclusive’ than would otherwise be the case by using as oversubscription criteria such factors as aptitude/ability in a subject area or giving priority to the children of former pupils.
• City Technology Colleges are intended to be representative of the full ability range of pupils in the catchment area. Whilst some attempt is made to obtain a balanced intake in terms of pupils’ cognitive ability, other selection criteria – including, for example, school reports, tests of ‘aptitude’, a writing test to assess ‘motivation’ to succeed, and questions relating to parents’ occupations – mean that in practice such schools cannot be considered to be genuine ‘all ability schools’.
• In short, for some types of schools, there are clear opportunities for schools to ‘select in’ and ‘select out’ pupils, and given the links between social background, prior attainment and later examination performance, these practices enable some such schools to obtain higher positions in examination ‘league tables’ than others.
• The evidence reported here reveals that, despite attempts by the Labour Government to reform school admissions, there is considerable room for improvement. Admissions criteria that are not objective, clear or fair continue to be used and some may also contravene current legislation. There are also problems with the admissions process; in some areas for example, parents are required to make multiple applications to different schools. The situation should improve, however, with the introduction of the new Code of Practice (DfES, 2003).
• The new Code of Practice also reiterates the concerns about oversubscription criteria that are potentially discriminatory, but were in operation at the time of our study (e.g. criteria giving preference to children whose parents or older siblings had previously attended the school or whose parents followed particular occupations, such as teachers).
• One issue raised in the Code of Practice, but addressed by very few admission authorities, relates to children in public care, who are a particularly disadvantaged group. The Code recommends that ‘all admission authorities give these children top priority in their oversubscription criteria’. Our analysis of admissions criteria revealed that this was a criterion for only two per cent of schools. It remains to be seen which admission authorities will take up this recommendation.
• Another issue that is mentioned in the Code of Practice relates to children with statements of special educational needs; where a school is named in the statement, pupils are required to be admitted to that school. This is another area where current practice could be improved. The admissions criteria and brochures we analysed were not consistent in terms of what information was provided; it would be in the interests of all parents, especially those with children with special educational needs, to have information about this issue.
• Guidance is not being adhered to by certain admission authorities and the body that has been set up to regulate school admissions – the Office of the Schools Adjudicator – needs more power if it is to have the impact that is needed for unfair admissions policies and practices to be removed.
• In our view, the process of secondary transfer needs to be further reformed so that some groups of parents and pupils – and schools – do not continue to benefit at the expense of others. At present, the majority of schools use admissions criteria that are not overtly or covertly selective. However, the policies adopted by a minority of schools have an impact on the intake to community schools, especially in certain urban areas. Schools that are their own admission authorities need to be encouraged to be both academically and socially-mixed with ‘fair access’ to all in an area. Policy makers have an opportunity to improve educational outcomes for the majority at the same time as promoting social justice. This will require legislation and more regulation, to prevent a continuation of policies and practices that are inequitable and contrary to the principles of social justice.
• The new Code of Practice is a step in the right direction, but in our view there are more improvements that could be made – maybe with the adjudicator adopting a more pro-active role – to ensure that school admissions are clearer, fairer and more objective.