Labour’s policy on admissions is promising but lacks bite

By Claudia Sumner and Jude Hillary

Saturday 29 September 2018

In her speech at the Labour Party Conference on Monday 24 September, the Shadow Education Secretary, Angela Rayner announced a series of policy proposals that a future Labour government would implement to change the way schools are overseen in England. As part of this suite of proposed measures, Ms Rayner announced that Labour would end the academy and free schools programmes and ‘take back control of admissions from academy trusts’ and return it to local authorities (LAs). While this may provide greater standardisation about how admissions are managed, if the intention of Ms Rayner is to achieve greater equity in the admissions system, we argue that this on its own will not be enough.

Background

The 2010 Academies Act, which was introduced by the then Coalition Government, created the greatest change to way schools are overseen in decades. It enabled large numbers of high performing schools to convert from LA control to academy status. Failing LA schools were also taken over and turned into ‘sponsored’ academies as part of multi-academy trusts. More than 80 per cent of secondary schools are now academies.

Under the Coalition government’s reforms, academy schools were also given responsibility for their own admissions policies, allowing them to alter their admissions criteria (as long as they do not breach the rules in Department for Education’s (DfE) Admissions Code). Although LAs continued to have responsibility for allocating school places for all children in their area, they have had to use the admissions criteria set by academies and free schools. Local authorities also have no control over the supply of places available in academies and free schools, so have limited ability to adjust provision to meet changing demand beyond the schools that remain under their control.

Labour’s plans

At the Labour Party Conference, Ms Rayner explained her objections to the current arrangements, Councillors are left responsible for school places but without the power to create them. So we will allow them to build schools, create new places and take back control of admissions from academy trusts.”

Although Ms Rayner did not state the aims of her proposed policy, it may be reasonable to assume that her intention is to reduce variation in school intakes and give all children access to the best schools regardless of their backgrounds. However, the available evidence does not suggest that there is a significant difference between the proportion of deprived children admitted across local authority and academy schools.

Evidence on school intakes pre and post academisation

Last year, NFER collaborated with the Sutton Trust to analyse the intakes of state schools in England. This shows that in 2017 there is no difference in free school meal (FSM) rates between LA and own admissions schools in either the 500 top performing schools (based on 5A*C including English and Maths) or indeed for all secondary schools in England. The national average FSM rate in 2017 was 17 per cent while the average deprivation rate for the top 500 schools was 9 per cent, whether they be  LA maintained or own admissions schools. While part of the reason for the 500 top performing schools having substantially lower FSM rates than the national average is due to them having more affluent catchments, both LA maintained and own admissions schools were unrepresentative of their local communities.

In 2006, when nearly all schools were LA controlled, earlier Sutton Trust analysis found that the national FSM figure was 14 per cent yet the FSM rates at the highest-performing secondary schools was under 6 per cent. This analysis suggest that, while it may make sense  from an administrative perspective, there is no evidence that taking all schools back under LA control for admissions will reduce variation between top performing schools and their catchments, or increase the number of disadvantaged children in the most effective schools.

No simple solutions

While it may indeed be more straightforward for parents if there were less variation in the admissions policies of local secondary schools,  making the LA, once again, the admissions authority for all schools would not in itself make admissions more equitable. The current secondary accountability system operated by DfE compares school outcomes based on the amount of progress their pupils make in secondary school. As a key determinant of school outcomes is the prior attainment of pupils, schools are incentivised to attract children who will make the most progress and get the best outcomes – and the evidence indicates that disadvantaged children are less likely to achieve this than their peers.     

While standardising admissions criteria will remove overt methods, there are still a number of covert methods that can be used by schools to encourage applications from certain groups of children and discourage them from others. These can include the promotion of certain activities or behaviours, or even the types of images used in the school prospectus. Parental choice also plays a significant role in the allocation of school places and this is driven by a range of factors, including faith status, school ethos, ethnicity and reputation. There is more to be addressed by Labour’s plans.

There are specific proposals available which are designed to mitigate variation in school intakes – the most widely cited is the random allocation of places (advocated by the Sutton Trust amongst others), but such policies are not failsafe, particularly given the impact of parental choice, and may have unintended consequences. The only way to achieve significant changes to the admissions system is to introduce far more radical policies that address the types of issues we have identified. This issue has been avoided by successive governments precisely because it is complex and risks alienating parent voters, though if we really want to achieve greater equity, now is the time to act.

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