Saturday, 12 May 2012

The New Admissions Code – Another Piece In Gove’s Monster Jigsaw (Guest Post)


Cllr Peter Downes (LD,
Brampton and Kimbolton)

A new code for organising the admission of pupils to schools came into force on February 1st 2012 and will affect admissions from 2013 onwards.

Although many of the changes from the previous Code could be seen as a simplification or tidying-up of previously convoluted procedures, the main changes of principle and policy are an integral part of Gove’s vision for the future school system.

The first is the deliberate diminution of local authority (LA) oversight and responsibilities. Ever since Gove came to power, local authorities have been cast in the role of blocks to progress. The have been the bad guys, the scapegoats for the failings in the education system. They have been depicted as over-bureaucratic, more concerned with defending their own interests than with championing improvement for pupils. Department for Education  (DfE) publications and press releases  constantly talk about ‘freeing schools from local authority control’. Those of us with long memories can testify that, since 1988, local authorities have had very little ‘control’ compared with what they had prior to Kenneth Baker’s Education Reform Act of 1988.

As far as admissions are concerned specifically, LAs have been responsible for coordinating the arrangements for admissions into schools for the youngest pupils and for transfer from primary to secondary. They have done this within national guidelines and have been working within the constraints of trying, as far as possible, to match pupils to available places, while trying, particularly in recent years, to meet parental wishes and preferences.

Under the new Code (2), the LA will only be the admissions authority for community schools and voluntary controlled schools. Admissions to Voluntary Aided and Foundation schools are the responsibility of the Governing Body. For academies (1) (and Free Schools which automatically have academy status) it is the Academy Trust that decides the admissions and also deals with appeals from parents who wanted a place for their children but were refused. The LA will still carry out the administrative function i.e. parents will send their application form to their home local authority, but the decision on which schools children attend will be made by the admissions authority for the school/academy. The decision within the academy must not be made by an individual but by a sub-committee of the governors, another task they probably did not realise they were taking on when they signed up to convert to academy status.

In most parts of the country, the vast majority of primary schools remain within LA oversight so there should not be a major upheaval. However, with 50% of secondary schools having become academies and, in some areas, nearly all secondary schools, the admissions process is going to get a lot more complicated for parents than it already is. Although the DfE claims that ‘this system will be simpler for parents to navigate and more transparent’, experienced practitioners believe the contrary.

Leaving to one side for the moment the process implications, the corner-stone of the new legislation is that popular and successful schools should be able to increase their Planned Admission Number (PAN) as they see fit. They do not need to consult the LA, nor neighbouring schools, nor even their own parent body. The Academy Trust can simply decide to expand the academy and publish its decision on its web-site and in its admissions booklet. The simplistic justification for this change is that ‘more pupils should be allowed to go to good schools’.  If ‘good schools’ (note the inverted commas – what really constitutes ‘good’ – Ofsted alone?) expand, other less good schools shrink unless there is overall demographic growth. This means that the less good schools, those merely ‘satisfactory’ or ‘required to improve’, will be left with those pupils whose parents have little educational aspiration for their children.

When a school has a critical mass of reluctant learners and socially deprived pupils, the task of raising standards becomes even harder. All schools need to have enough motivated pupils to maintain staff morale and to raise the overall aspiration of the school. Both headteacher associations have rung the alarm bells:

Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head teachers (NAHT), said: ‘The proposals favour the children of the affluent and engaged at the expense of those who are unable or unwilling to navigate the system. Increased mobility will not eliminate failing schools. It will merely prevent them from improving and condemn them to a lingering decline’.

Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), was even more gloomy: ‘Allowing popular schools to expand will do nothing to improve social mobility. It will create sink schools in many areas of deprivation and hit hardest those children whose parents do not or cannot take an interest in their education. Those schools left with the most challenging pupils who need the most intensive support, will suffer a slow spiral of decline and their pupils will lose out on life chances. The effect will be another generation of haves and have-nots.’

Gove’s fixation with changing schools and systems gives him a huge blind spot: the moral responsibility of a nation for the well-being of all its citizens. Gove is applying the principle of the market-place to the education system. The successful provider expands and the unsuccessful contracts, withers and eventually disappears. The supermarket drives out the small trader. But the analogy falls down because the content of schools is not the same as that of a supermarket. The tins of beans in a failing small shop can be sent back to the wholesaler. They are not harmed. Pupils are not tins of beans. They get one opportunity to go through school and their life chances could be irrevocably damaged.

So, an alternative philosophy, espoused by those in the broad centre-left of the political spectrum, is that, rather than expanding ‘good schools’, we should apply all our considerable energy and expertise to helping the less good schools become better. ‘A good local school for all’ is a worthy objective.

Supporters of the current government will argue that the introduction of the Pupil Premium (PP), directing funding to pupils on Free School Meals (FSM), or, from next year, pupils who have been on FSM at any stage in the last six years, gives a clear signal that the government is committed to helping the poorest pupils. This brings us to another new feature of the Admissions Code: some schools will be allowed, in their admissions criteria, to give preference to FSM pupils. But which schools? Only academies and free schools! The current indications are that academies and free schools generally have fewer PP pupils than the average. Are they going to want to recruit PP pupils because they have the expertise to give them the educational opportunities they need, or are they doing it because they want to have the extra money that the PP brings? Given that 74% of secondary heads admitted that they were only converting to academy status because of the extra funding it brings, one can only imagine the debate within governing bodies of academies: ‘It seems a good idea to recruit more PP pupils and get the extra money.’ ‘No, having more PP pupils would bring down our results, we would drop down the league tables and the parents of our better pupils would take them away, so it would be better not to take them’.

A number of smaller changes have proved to be controversial during the consultation period and will no doubt do so when the new Code has an impact on the lives of individuals. Under the new Code academies can:

  • give priority to the children of staff working at the school (but only if the member of staff has been there for at least two years or is recruited to fill a vacant post for which there is a ‘demonstrable skill shortage’). 
  • organise their own in-year admissions. This could mean that, as soon as an academy has a vacancy because a pupil leaves, it could get in touch with its waiting-list and recruit to fill the gap. This means that the academy can always keep up its roll numbers which means more funding, while a school which loses one or more pupils becomes gradually less cost-effective. The Code states that ‘any parent can apply for a place for their child at any time to any school’.
  • breach the infant class size limit of 30 for SEN children, looked after children, twins and multiple births, and children of service personnel

There is a list of things an admissions authority cannot do, for example:

  • allocate places by lottery
  • introduce a banding system to ensure a balanced intake
  • refuse to take special needs children where their statement names the academy as the appropriate school

An area which will prove controversial in due course is the vexed question of what to do with ‘pupils with challenging behaviour’. Most LAs have worked hard over many years to build up Behaviour Partnerships to ensure that places for difficult children are found on a shared basis among a group of schools so that no school is overwhelmed by having too many. In an authority area with a mixture of academies and community schools, where competition rather than collaboration is the assumed norm, it will become increasingly difficult to find places for the challenging pupils, excluded from other establishments, whose presence may bring down the all-important results. Every LA is required to have a ‘Fair Access Protocol’ but there are early doubts about their capacity to enforce it.

By raising the stakes through the increasing emphasis  on league tables and putting schools into categories, the government has sharpened public interest and stimulated anxiety, not to say neurosis, over ‘getting my child into the best school’.  There is likely to be an increase in appeals and the DfE has published a separate Code on Appeals procedures. Academy Trusts have to organise their own appeals and will have to decide whether admitting the appellant would ‘prejudice the provision of efficient education or efficient use of resources’. This looks like being a legal minefield and offers lucrative opportunities for lawyers, and a busy time for the Schools Adjudicator when things go badly wrong.

So what is the overall vision, the monster jigsaw, of which the Admissions Code is a key piece? Gove appears to believe that the English education system has been too uniform, uninspiring, dominated by the vested interests of the teaching unions and petty-minded local politicians. Prior to the last election (3) he stated unequivocally that his mission would be to ‘transform the education system for the better’.  What he is actually doing is fragmenting provision, diversifying it, opening it up to the powerful pressure of local opinion while, paradoxically, taking to himself as Secretary of State more power than anybody has ever had in his position. Academies, for example, are bound in a seven year agreement signed with him. He can instruct and direct schools to be opened and closed in a way no previous English Secretary of State has been able to do.

The next stage will be the opening-up of state education to the private sector. Already we can see the growth of the edubusiness world as the private sector jostles to pick up lucrative contracts to provide services, build and manage schools, provide equipment. Further down the line it is not impossible that for-profit companies will take over entire chains of schools as people realise that schools cannot exist in isolation and need to work together.

Gove skilfully rushed through the main planks of his reform in the first couple of months of the coalition. Subsequent social reforms such as the NHS proposals have had much greater scrutiny and some of the excesses cut back. Not so with education. With academies and free schools in place, with the new admissions code and shortly the new curriculum, the picture on Gove’s jigsaw will become clear.

When people see it for what it really is, I doubt they will like it. Way back in September 2010, at the Liberal Democrat conference in Liverpool, I attempted, Cassandra-like, to alert my party to the potential dangers of what was happening. I argued that Gove’s reforms would prove to be costly, divisive and unfair.

We have already seen how the government has somehow found millions of pounds, probably in excess of £600m, to ‘bribe’ schools into converting to academy status. (4)

As for being divisive, the process has not only divided local schools into pro and anti factions, it has proved to be divisive within schools as parents, governors and staff squabble about whether ‘getting the best deal for their own school’ predominates over the ‘greatest good for the largest number’.

The Admissions Code now reinforces my concern about unfairness. Some schools will get stronger and probably improve their performance by recruiting a higher proportion of more able pupils and by having the size and therefore the cost-efficiency to provide good facilities and more, perhaps better-paid, staff. But many others will struggle with declining rolls, demoralised staff, reluctant learners and shortage of funds.

Gove’s vision was transformation for the better. Will it all make our education system better? The evidence so far is mixed: some of the early academies set up by Labour have done well by improving the performance of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds but many have not. It is too early to say whether the new wave of converter academies, mainly drawn from already successful schools, will get even better.

However much you change the system, educational establishments are full of human beings with their strengths and weaknesses, their foibles and fallibilities. Already we have seen some high profile cases of fraud within an academy chain. Some academies have been inspected and put into the lowest category for which the normal rescue package is to convert compulsorily to become an academy, but they already are, so what next for them?

Underlying all the changes of the last two years is the fundamental question of the place of education in society. Is it a marketable product, to be purchased and subject to the competitive pressures of the market-place, or is it a public good, to be available equitably to all members of society, wherever they happen to be born and in whatever circumstances. The prevailing Govian principles favour the former construct. Will those who disagree ever be able to break the jigsaw up and re-build it more equitably. We shall see!

Peter Downes was a comprehensive school Head for 21 years in Witney, Oxfordshire and Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire. He was President of the Secondary Heads Association (now the Association of School and College Leaders) and went on to be their Funding Consultant. He is now ‘retired’ i.e. he is a primary school governor, County Councillor in Cambridgeshire and Vice-President of the Liberal Democrat Education Association. He writes in a personal capacity.(5)

Notes
1. Throughout this article, I have used lower case letters for academies and schools. DfE publications always grant academies the privilege of a capital A as if to emphasise their superiority!
2. The Admissions Code can be found on the DfE web-site. Go to www.education.gov.uk and type Admissions into the Search box. You will find links to the Code and to the Appeals process, and lots of answers to FAQs.
3. Speech made in November 2009
4. See article ‘The great academies rip-off’
5. Address for correspondence arising from this article: peter.downes@cambridgeshire.gov.uk