New Clause 24 — Admissions administration
Orders of the Day
Sarah Teather (Shadow Secretary of State for Education and Skills, Education & Skills; Brent East, Liberal Democrat)
The amendments relate to what is probably the most controversial aspect of our debate. What has concerned many people is the proposal in the Bill and in its forerunner, the White Paper, to give schools more freedom to control their admissions. People are worried about that because all the evidence suggests that when we give schools that freedom, over time they tend to move towards choosing the brighter children and the more middle-class children.
I am certain that hon. Members will have constituency examples of when that is not the case, and I would not want to say that that is what happens in all schools, because clearly it does not. However, the worry is that the evidence suggests that, on the whole, schools will use that power to choose those children because of the pressure to drive up standards, particularly in the light of league tables. We have seen evidence from the Sutton Trust, Simon Burgess from the university of Bristol, and Rebecca Allen from the Institute of Education, and it all suggests the same outcome.
In response to that widespread concern, hon. Members—certainly Liberal Democrat and, in particular, Labour Members, if not Conservative Members—put pressure on the Government, who responded by changing the proposals in the White Paper so that the Bill now states that all admissions authorities should act in accordance with the code of admissions, rather than just having to have regard to that code. That was a welcome change.
The draft school legal code was published while the Bill was in Committee and was debated extensively in Committee. It touched on many things that worried me and was a welcome addition. Some things in it are very good. They include the ban on interviewing and prioritising children in care and those with a statement of special educational needs. However, I particularly welcomed the focus on the softer aspects, such as the tendency for schools to put poorer families off applying by advertising expensive trips and expensive uniforms and, specifically, for schools to use information known about a family gained through either brothers or sisters attending the same school or through parent open evenings.
The difficulty with many of those things is that they require a subjective judgment about whether the school has used that information in coming to a decision on admissions. My fears were fuelled by an ICM poll published in the press a few months ago, which suggested that one in four head teachers cheat on their selection criteria to cherry-pick pupils. The latter aspect of that concerned me most: they were quite specific that they do it to cherry-pick pupils. If a head teacher cheats, that undermines trust in the system. It undermines the trust of parents, students and other schools in the same local authority area. Above all, it undermines the Government's good work and their efforts to improve admissions and tackle covert selection by introducing a code that is welcome in many ways.
The safest way to remove the danger of cheating is to allow someone else to administer the system. New clause 24 would allow schools to continue to set their own criteria in accordance with the code. Under that code, admissions criteria must be objective. They must not be subjective, and they must be easily understood. However, if they are objective, why must the school administer them? Anyone could do so, as they could be written down and measured. It would be better to give the duty to an impartial body. The local authority, which oversees and co-ordinates strategic provision, is best placed to administer the system. It does not have any incentive to cheat as it does not favour one school over another. It simply wants all its schools to do well and to raise standards across the area.