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EDUCATION: School admissions: it’s all in code

11 June 2008

Dennis Richards wrestles with the vexed problem of who gets a place

WHEN examination league tables were first introduced in the late 1980s, commentators and cartoonists had great fun comparing the plight of hapless bottom-of-the-league head teachers with football managers.

It was all tongue-in-cheek. Ashen-faced heads faced the chairman of the board, whose “vote of confidence” could mean one only thing . . . the chop. Twenty years on, the smiles have long gone — but the parallels are ever closer and more disturbing.

Apparently, Sir Alex Ferguson is already building his squad for next season, not content for a minute to rest on the laurels of his European and Premiership double. There will be two overriding issues: what sort of budget will his board allow him to spend on players? And which players will enable him to maintain his place at the pinnacle of English football?

It’s not that different for today’s head teachers. They have no greater anxieties than the state of the school budget and the “quality” of the pupil intake. The league tables have seen to that. No wonder there is an annual furore over admissions, as head teachers watch each other like hawks, and squawk loudly at any hint of jiggery-pokery — imagined or otherwise.

Church schools are not immune. Furthermore, nothing agitates middle-class parents more than failing to get a place in a sought-after school.

The Education Secretary, Ed Balls, also joined the fray this year, asking his minions to do a detailed study of three LEAs: Barnet, Manchester, and Northamptonshire. They discovered that schools were, apparently, widely flouting the new statutory Admissions Code introduced in 2007.

So, said, Mr Balls, if middle-class parents are not getting the choice they desire, it’s not the Government’s fault: it’s those unscrupulous schools that cheat — even to the extent of asking prospective parents for hard cash to guarantee a place.

Journalists rushed after the story like Gadarene swine, all of which served Mr Balls nicely. Since most of the miscreants appeared to be faith schools, opponents of church schools also had a field day.

As ever, the story isn’t quite what we were being told. The school allegedly asking for money just happened to be Jewish. The press loved that, but then failed to point out that the school needs extensive extra security fencing and devices to protect its children from racist bigots.

The resultant hype also disguised the real issue: the alleged breaches of the code primarily concerned children in care, and children with a statement of special educational need, where the school is oversubscribed.

The code clearly intends such children, rightly, to have priority over all other applicants. In most church schools, that happens anyway. In the primary sector in many villages and small towns, the church school is the only school, and all the local children attend it. Furthermore, many church secondary schools are in areas of high deprivation and are not necessarily oversubscribed.

Some of the breaches were technical: seeking confirmation that a child really is in care seems a wise precaution rather than anything sinister.

BREACHES ASIDE, the code does actually allow schools to prioritise “looked-after children who are of the faith of the school”. Since this group includes the most socially disadvantaged, and often the most damaged children in the land, it hardly seems fair to enquire after their faith.

Many of the children have no idea who their dad is, let alone theological niceties. Using any device to keep such children out of your school is a spectacular “own goal” for faith-school education.

It is a matter of some relief that Mr Balls chose Northants and not North Yorks. It is also an offence to ask parents for information not directly related to religious affiliation and practice. Church schools, including St Aidan’s, have commonly seen it as part of their mission to encourage participation in uniformed organisations, giving to charity, and community service — and allocated bonus points for so doing. Guides, givers, and governors, you might say.

The code clearly forbids it. We got away with it in 2008; we’ll have to do it differently in 2009.

Opponents of church schools cannot stomach the fact that church schools dominate the upper reaches of performance tables. They will not allow that ethos can make a difference. It must be, they say, because they pick and choose.

The vast majority cannot. Those who can must dispel all suspicion. And who knows? Sir Alex may be forced to accept new rules as well. Why should he always be top of the league?

Dennis Richards is head of St Aidan’s C of E High School, Harrogate.

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