Rebecca Hickman - The new walls being built around our schools
Ayesha is unlucky – twice over. Her first mistake was to be born in a country that is one of the few remaining local authorities operating an '11+' test for all its students to determine secondary school admissions. As Ayesha’s prior attainment is below average, she will 'fail' this test and will attend an ‘upper school’ whose intake is significantly skewed, socially and educationally, by the creaming off that takes place locally at age 11.
Until this year, Ayesha would have been likely to go to her nearest upper school – let’s call it Lowtown Secondary – just a mile away from her home. But here’s her second piece of bad luck. Lowtown Secondary made the decision last year to seek academy status, and then immediately moved to introduce a new admissions policy. The wall around Ayesha’s local school began to grow.
The admissions policy was trumpeted by the school as a step that would make them “all ability” and would mean that, “the local authority is not fully selective anymore.” These were strange claims for two reasons. First, the school has always been open to children of all abilities and second, with this supposed end to selection, comes another admissions test. The school has decided that children who wish to list Lowtown Academy as an option must take an additional test on top of the 11+ exam that they already sit locally. Their score will be used to place them in one of four ability bands. If Lowtown Academy is oversubscribed – which it currently is as a result of significant progress in recent years – one quarter of the total places will be offered to an equal number of children in each band, with priority within each band being determined by the distance the child lives from the school.
This might sound like a perfectly sensible way of allocating oversubscribed places. And it possibly would be in a non-selective area where a cluster of schools serve an area with a fairly uniform social and economic profile. But neither of these criteria apply to Lowtown Academy and as a result, this year Ayesha may well find herself turned away from her nearest school.
The reason why is slightly complicated but goes like this. Lowtown Academy will allocate 25 per cent of applicants to each ability band depending on their test score. On national 'offer day' in March, children will find out which schools have offered them a place. Most, if not all of the children in Lowtown’s top band (Band A) will also be offered a place at a grammar school. And on current evidence, most if not all will accept that place. In this town, it is rare for parents to choose an upper school in favour of a local grammar school.
When Lowtown’s top ability band ends up virtually empty, the places in it will be allocated to children in Band B – even if they live further from the school than children who have failed to gain places in Bands C and D, because those bands are 'full'. Many of the children in Lowtown Academy’s immediate vicinity are of below average prior attainment with a significant proportion, like Ayesha, speaking English as a second language. It is probable therefore that these children will be disproportionately represented in Bands C and D, and that some of them, like Ayesha, who have failed to get a place at a grammar school will also fail to get a place at their nearest upper school.
The Government has made much of the localism agenda and their belief that by taking school oversight and support out of the hands of elected local authorities, academies will somehow be more accountable to their local communities. But Ayesha's story shows that precisely the opposite can happen.
Many people locally, including both educational professionals and ordinary residents, were deeply unhappy about Lowtown Academy’s proposed new admissions policy. They felt it smacked of backdoor selection. Whichever way you look at it, children whose test scores place them in Band B are going to be more likely to get a place at Lowtown than children in Band D, once Band A empties out. This will have two obvious and undesirable impacts: Firstly, lower attaining children, including vulnerable children who are particularly in need of community support, may miss out on a place at their nearest school. Secondly, other local upper schools will find that the academic ability range of their intake is further diminished, with all the consequential challenges. Lowtown Academy will take a disproportionate number of the most able children who have not won grammar school places – good for their exam ratings, but less good for every other local school.
It was unsurprising therefore that a broad-based alliance of opponents to Lowtown Academy’s proposals quickly emerged. The Conservative-led local authority was one of the first to raise concerns, followed by local upper schools, community and Labour Party activists and representatives of the minority ethnic communities. Lowtown Academy made some changes to their admissions process but announced their intention to press ahead. They claimed support from the local community during the consultation exercise. But closer scrutiny of the ‘supportive’ consultation responses revealed a widespread misunderstanding among local people that Lowtown was becoming a 'comprehensive' school: A laudable ambition, but not a realistic one with several of the country’s leading grammar schools within a few miles radius and the vast majority of children still taking the 11+ entrance exam.
The wall grows higher
Objectors still had recourse to the Office of the School Adjudicator. The OSA exists to enforce the School Admissions Code, which amongst other things requires that admissions policies are 'fair' and 'reasonable', do not discriminate and do not introduce new forms of selection. They would ensure that the best interests of local children were properly served. Wouldn’t they?
With objections submitted by eleven local secondary schools, three primary schools, the local authority, a local BME umbrella group and a handful of residents, it was still possible that the interests of the broader community might prevail. But the objectors had not reckoned on the dead-hand of unaccountable bureaucracies.
An adjudicator visited and listened to concerns. The meeting was lengthy, as between them the objectors had cited no fewer than thirteen sections of the admissions code that they believed had been contravened. Then they had to wait – for seven weeks as it turned out. At the end of August, the adjudicator finally issued a ruling rejecting nearly all the grounds of the objections. There was deep disappointment, not least because the determination appeared partial and, in the view of the objectors, the adjudicator did not appear to have grasped the essence of some of the central points being made.
So a formal complaint was submitted to the OSA. After a further six-week delay the OSA responded to say that they could not consider any of the substantive issues in the complaint, whatever their merit, because they are powerless to reopen any cases once a determination is issued. The complaint raised issues as fundamental as the adjudicator not having regard to the relevant legislation and disregarding key evidence presented to him, but the objectors could not even request a simple review of the flawed ruling. Legal challenge, via Judicial Review, was outside the financial range of the objectors.
The wall around Lowtown Academy now seemed very high indeed.
At the same time the OSA reluctantly released some telling pieces of information. Firstly, in relation to this specific case, after initially asserting that they had not sought legal advice on Lowtown Academy’s admissions policy, they corrected themselves and admitted that they had indeed sought and received such advice. But they would not release it on the grounds that ‘the public interest in maintaining the exemption [which allows for some information relating to legal advice to be withheld] outweighs the public interest in disclosure of the information’. When pressed further, the OSA conceded that there were three factors in favour of disclosure, including that, “Public authorities should be accountable for the decisions they take and accountability is enhanced if the public understands the underlying reasoning,” but they still declined to release the legal advice they had received. It is difficult to infer anything from this other than the legal advice did not entirely support the adjudicator’s decision.
Secondly, and of wider relevance, the OSA revealed that they undertake no systematic monitoring of the cases they deal with. They do not collect any data on the number of complaints that they receive about contraventions of particular sections of the Code, so it is impossible to know where the most serious problems are occurring. Moreover, they do not monitor the rulings of the different adjudicators. Not only are the adjudicators not provided with any guidance on how to interpret and apply phrases such as ‘fair and reasonable’ and ‘must not disadvantage unfairly’, but it appears that there is also no systematic oversight or monitoring to ensure consistent application of these and other core principles.
Such is the accountability and transparency of the system that now determines where our children will go to school. Academies with no local democratic accountability are able to ignore the legitimate concerns of their communities. The only court of appeal is an unelected and remote bureaucracy with limited understanding of the local circumstances and issues that they must arbitrate. It is virtually impossible to challenge their judgments other than through prohibitively expensive legal processes. The playing field is skewed and if the referee seems to be playing for one of the teams, there is little that local people can do about it.
What about Ayesha?
And Ayesha? Her parents could of course appeal to the school against their decision. But they are unlikely to be successful without support. The Advisory Centre for Education (ACE), a national organisation who gave independent and free advice to parents in such circumstances, was forced to close a few months ago when its government funding was withdrawn. As with the Adjudicator, there are insuperable barriers blocking access to justice for parents who simply want their child to have the right to attend their nearest school.
So the chances are that, at best, Ayesha will be travelling across the town at her parents' expense, the bus passing her local school and other buses bringing in higher attaining children from further away. A parallel situation, of course, to the existing grammar school process. She will be 'selected out' – twice. And the options for her parents – or for local people who want to object – have been closed. Can this be the Coalition’s localism at work?
Lowtown maintain that the new admissions policy will not work in the way in which the critics have claimed. For the sake of Ayesha and many others like her, we sincerely hope they are right.
Lowtown Academy is not the real name of the school concerned, but the case described in this article is real. Ayesha is a fictional child – it will not start to become clear until after this year’s allocation of places how many children locally may find themselves in her situation.
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