Dirty Tricks Used to Boost School Rankings

The imminent publication of school results in Australia will inevitably give rise to the extensive rorting and manipulation of results to improve school rankings that has become a feature of school systems in England and the United States.

A common rort is for schools to selectively admit high achieving students, ‘cream off’ high achievers from other schools and exclude low achievers so as to boost their results.

The latest example is from England where state secondary schools are using ‘dirty tricks’ to attract high achieving students. According to new research published this week by academics from the London School of Economics (LSE) many schools are still covertly selecting students on the basis of academic ability despite it being outlawed by government regulations.

The study found that several schools are “gazumping” each other to attract the best students and principals are employing underhand tactics which are outside the official guidelines for school admissions.

The UK Government introduced a stricter school admissions code earlier this year to make admissions fairer, but the study found that the code was not enough to stop schools poaching students from one another. It said that it was “not difficult to find schools that fall foul of the code”.

The dubious practices include contacting parents to persuade them to reject offers from more highly preferred schools and ranking students on waiting lists according to their own criteria rather than the official rules which give priority to disadvantaged children and those with special needs. One school selected students on the basis of how near their homes were to a building half a mile from the school in an attempt to upgrade its student intake. Another school removed the sibling rule from its admissions criteria so as to break the link with the social composition of the existing student cohort.

The authors told a London Conference that these dubious practices can leave some families in “dead zones” – low income neighbourhoods where children stand little chance of an offer from any popular school in their area. Children can even be left without a place at their local school.

While the Code states that it is ‘necessary to improve the chances of more disadvantaged children getting into good schools’, it is clear that those interpreting the Code are not taking advantage of all opportunities to improve those chances.

The researchers said that there is a need for greater collective control over school admissions arrangements. They called for a re-vamp of the admissions rules, with local authorities taking greater control over the administration of admissions for all schools.

Particular concerns were expressed about the admission procedures of faith schools and academies within the government system which have a greater degree of control over enrolments than normal schools.

This is likely to become a major issue in Australia with its large private sector. Private schools have the ability to select their students and they already engage in poaching students from other private and government schools. This is likely to escalate once school results are published as schools strive to manage new enrolments to maximise their standing. Many government schools could be disadvantaged by their high achieving students being ‘creamed off’ by predatory private schools striving to maintain or improve their ranking and reputation.

It demonstrates one of the major flaws in publishing school results – a school’s results may be significantly affected by manipulation and rorting by itself or other schools without any change in the quality of teaching or programs. Consequently, parents and the public may be misled in comparing schools on the basis of their published results. The apparent success of some schools may be illusory.

Trevor Cobbold

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