It’s time for a fairer school admissions system

The Young Fabians Education Network hosted in debate in Parliament in early February looking at the secondary school admissions system.  

With access to the best schools often dependent on postcode, some parents are able to effectively buy their way into high quality state education, by buying or renting housing in the right catchment areas. The event looked at some of the possible alternatives, and the practical and political challenges involved in reforming school admissions.admissions system.

You can read a Storify of the event here.

Following the event Joel Mullan wrote an article for Left Foot Forward on the key messages emerging from the discussion. It is reproduced below. 

admissions system. 

As children across the country find out which secondary school they will be attending, we need to find a system that facilitates greater social mobility

There’s a growing consensus that the school admissions system isn’t working. A blockbuster report from the Office of the Schools Adjudicator published in December found that admissions policies are often ‘unnecessarily complex’, unfair or unclear, and that too many schools are not complying with the current requirements.

 Too many parents face a postcode lottery. Access to a good school is too closely linked to where they live, and often by extension, how much they earn. Academic research has concluded that in order to break the link between access to high-performing schools and family income, places at oversubscribed schools need to be allocated using a fairer method than proximity to the school.

 Every child should have the right to attend a good school, but while such variability in school quality remains, places at the best schools must be allocated fairly, rather than simply those who can afford to live nearby.

So what can be done? Finding a solution to unfair school admissions is not simple. 

Some, including the Sutton Trust, propose that the postcode lottery be replaced by an actual lottery, whereby places at oversubscribed schools would be allocated at random. Local authorities are currently banned by the admissions code from doing this on an area-wide basis but individuals schools can and do use it to allocate oversubscribed places.

While I, along with many others, think this idea has a lot of merit as the fairest way to allocate oversubscribed places, speakers at a recent Young Fabians Education Network event held in parliament were not so sure. They expressed doubts about whether politicians and parents alike would have the appetite for such a radical change, and were fearful of adding to parental anxiety. 

As Comprehensive Future have suggested, in the absence of a clearly superior alternative there would be huge value in conducting a wholesale review of school admissions to come to a considered view, driven by the evidence, of how school places should be allocated.

In the meantime, there are other things that can be done. Speakers at our event, including representatives from the left and right of the political spectrum, agreed that there is a very strong case for making local authorities the admissions authority for all schools in their area. There is also much to be gained from simplifying the labyrinthine national School Admissions Code.

When so many organisations and individuals—from all political persuasions and none—are agreed on the need to look again at admissions, it’s time to give this issue some attention.

All of our main political parties are committed, in word at least, to facilitating greater social mobility. In this space it’s quite simple. Without a fairer school admissions system, the UK is not going to achieve the socially mobile society it aspires to. So let’s get on with realising it.

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