Unlocking the Gates of School Segregation

The children’s charity, Bernado’s says that impenetrable “clusters of privilege” are forming around the best state schools in England. In a report released last week, Bernado’s says that privileged children are monopolising the top state schools in England and poorer families are losing out in a complex and unfair system.

The report, Unlocking the Gates: Giving Disadvantaged Children a Fairer Deal in School Admissions , says that children from low income families already lagging behind their better-off peers in terms of educational achievement are held back by socially selective school admissions. It says that the admissions system is incredibly complex and that poor families have great difficulty in negotiating their way through it.

While the current system aims to promote parental choice, it has become very complicated and therefore off-putting to some parents…..while middle class parents tend to be strongly engaged to get the best result from the admissions process – even to the extent of moving house – disadvantaged parents are less likely to exercise their right to choose and more likely to simply opt for their local school, or not apply at all. [p.8]

It says this effect is exacerbated by the publication of school league tables:

…league tables create incentives for schools to select pupils who are more likely to achieve good grades, since this will give them the best chance of maintaining an impressive ranking in the league tables. [p.12]

The report notes that there has been much interest across the political divide in narrowing the achievement gap in education. However, school admissions have not been given prominence in this debate, despite the evidence that secondary schools in England are socially segregated and that social segregation entrenches educational disadvantage.

It says that unfair admissions practices result in schools with skewed intakes that do not reflect their neighbourhoods. The top secondary schools in England take on average only five per cent of students entitled to free school meals (a proxy for low income), which is less than half the national average.

Despite evidence showing that social segregation harms pupil performance and that all children do better if schools have a mix of student ability and background, half of all students entitled to free school meals are still concentrated in a quarter of secondary schools.

Martin Narey, Barnardo’s chief executive, said:

Secondary school admissions fail to ensure a level playing field for all children. Instead we are seeing impenetrable clusters of privilege forming around the most popular schools. Allowing such practice to persist – and almost certainly expand as increasing numbers of schools take control of their own admissions – will only sustain the achievement gap in education and undermine the prospects of the most disadvantaged and vulnerable children. [ The Guardian, 27 August 2010]

Anne Pinney, Barnardo’s assistant director of policy and research, said:

Children born into disadvantage do worse in school, they do worse at GCSE, they are more likely to leave early and more likely to be trapped in unemployment … we want to put the spotlight on the role that unfair admissions plays in sustaining the achievement gap in education. [ The Guardian, 27 August 2010]

Children born into disadvantage, already less likely to do well in school, more likely to leave at 16 and not participate in education, employment or training. They are less likely to go on to higher education, are condemned to go the worst not the best schools.

Mr. Narey said

If we are to wipe out the entrenched poverty that erodes the life chances of one in four children in the UK, if we are to re-ignite social mobility, then we must stop educational disadvantage being passed down from one generation to the next. [Bernado’s Media Release, 27 August 2010]

The Bernado’s report outlines how widening access to good neighbourhood schools has a critical role to play in narrowing the opportunity gap in education. It recommends admitting equal proportions of pupils in different ability bands as a fairer basis for school admissions. It says that schools should be required to report annually on the profile of their pupil intake in reports to parents and school governing bodies. It also calls for increased scrutiny of admissions practice by the School Adjudicator and/or the Office for Standards in Education (OFSTED).

Trevor Cobbold

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